Indian gaming

Mechoopda inch closer to casino

Chico’s Mechoopda Indian tribe has taken another step in its long and convoluted effort to build a casino south of Chico, but how much significance the step has depends on who’s talking.

On Oct. 25, the chairman of the National Indian Gaming Commission, Philip Hogen, signed a “finding of no significant impact,” or FONSI, meaning that the tribe does not have to complete a full environmental review in order to obtain approval of its management contract with Station Casinos, of Las Vegas.

Butte County, which vehemently opposes the casino’s proposed location, near the intersection of Highways 99 and 149, had asked the NIGC to require a full environment-impact statement.

To Sandra Knight, tribal secretary, the FONSI is “one step in the process of restoring our traditional land back to the tribe. … We’re obviously very excited that Chairman Hogen has issued this FONSI.”

But to County Counsel Bruce Alpert, the FONSI is “not really any big deal.” It’s related only to approval of the management contract, he explained, and has nothing to do with the tribe’s parallel land-into-trust application to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which ultimately will decide whether the tribe is able to build the casino.

“Frankly, we don’t have a big concern with what the Mechoopda agree to with their management company,” he said. “I’m not saying [the FONSI] is meaningless, but it’s not important in the scheme of what they’re trying to accomplish. It’s just a normal step along the way.”

Alpert said county officials still believe the BIA “will call for a full review, which [even if done] might still not guarantee their [land-into-trust] application.”

A land-into-trust application is an effort by a non-reservation tribe to have the BIA take a piece of land into trust, thereby giving the tribe sovereignty over it, something that must be done before a tribe can construct a casino on the land. Among other things, the tribe must show that the land was part of its ancestral territory.

Alpert was quick to stress that the county is not “anti-Mechoopda.” Its problem is with the proposed site, which he said is an aquifer recharge area, is in a flood plain and has critical species habitat. “It’s just not the place to put a casino,” he said.

The county has tried to work with the tribe to find another site, he added, but with no success. “They are committed to this site, and we are committed to stopping them.”

For her part, Knight agrees with Alpert that the BIA could go either way on the casino, but “you have to remember that they are the trustee of this tribe. The tribe’s welfare is supposed to be important to them.”

Either way, though, it may be years before the process is over. There are as many as 1,300 land-for-trust applications in the pipeline, and they’re each taking an average of 18 months to process. At that rate, some may not be done for decades.

The BIA’s new head, Assistant Interior Secretary Carl Artman, has analyzed the applications and determined only 217 are complete and ready for a decision. They include the Mechoopda’s. He also has streamlined the process, put all the applications on a single national database, and will soon issue a land-into-trust handbook to synch up the various regional offices. The impact of these changes remains to be seen.

As Knight put it, “We just inch along. We’re not sure it will even happen during this administration. But we’re still in the process.”