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Indian casinos raising concerns Many communities don't want them

While Buffalo appears to be cautiously embracing the Seneca Nation's proposal for an off-reservation casino, concern grows in Congress and nationwide about Indian tribes building gambling halls in communities that don't want them.

Communities in Michigan, Oregon and other states have voiced "grave concerns," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who recently convened a series of hearings that cast a harsh eye on off-reservation gambling.

Asked to gauge the public outcry, McCain said: "It's getting bigger all the time."

McCain, who heads the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs, said he had not heard about the Seneca Nation's plans for a Buffalo casino. "But I'm sure I will," he added.

And if he does, he'll probably hear about a series of contrasts between the approach to Indian-run casinos in the Buffalo area and the approach nationwide. For example:

*The Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino is moving forward without any of the environmental reviews that federal officials tout as central to off-reservation casino approvals in other places.

*After New York State used eminent domain to take property for the Senecas in Niagara Falls, the American Conservative Union cited the move when asking members to fight land confiscations nationwide.

*A recent Buffalo News poll found a narrow majority of city voters favoring the Seneca casino, but residents of other communities have fought back, fearing the changes a casino would bring.

So far, at least, off-reservation gambling halls are relatively rare. The Seneca Niagara Casino was only the fourth nationwide.

But the national outcry is growing because the Department of the Interior is faced with applications for 13 more off-reservation casinos. Tribes have proposed building casinos in urban areas such as Detroit and Denver, along with environmentally sensitive areas like the Columbia River gorge in Oregon.

At a recent Senate hearing, the Interior Department's top Indian gambling official stressed that off-reservation casino proposals have to withstand a serious federal review under the National Environmental Policy Act, which can delay a casino's construction for up to a year.

"The public has an opportunity to comment during the . . . process, which includes a review of socioeconomic impacts such as housing, jobs and the rate of population growth in the area," said George T. Skibine, acting deputy assistant secretary of the Interior.

While an environmental assessment was conducted in Niagara Falls before the 2002 opening of the Seneca Niagara Casino, no such review has taken place in Buffalo. And Indian gambling experts think that makes the planned Buffalo gambling hall the only Indian casino that has been able to move forward without such a review.

"I can't say unequivocally that it's never occurred, but it's highly unusual," said Steven Andrew Light, co-director of Institute for the Study of Tribal Gaming Law and Policy at the University of North Dakota.

That being the case, when a Buffalo citizens group sued the federal government in hopes of stopping the city casino, it included a claim that the Interior Department violated federal law by not requiring an environmental review. "You'll have increased traffic, lots of light, increased pollution, and all of it 24 hours a day," said Richard Lippes, a lawyer for the citizens group. "All of that has to be looked at as a potential environmental consequence."

The lack of an environmental review in Buffalo is by no means the only thing that makes the Senecas' efforts unusual. Light said he believes that in Niagara Falls, New York became the only state to help an Indian tribe assemble land for its casino through eminent domain.

That move has recently become something of a sensation among conservatives fighting such "takings" of private property. On Fox News, "Hannity and Colmes" recently featured the Niagara Falls situation. And the American Conservative Union issued an e-mail alert to members criticizing the state for taking land for the Senecas.

"What a strange irony when you consider that the Seneca Indian Nation is technically a sovereign nation within the United States!" the e-mail alert said. "Who knows . . . maybe one day our government may take land from American citizens and hand it over to France or Belgium. Who knows . . . maybe one day we'll give Manhattan back."

Steven Anderson of the Institute for Justice, a libertarian group that is fighting the expanded use of eminent domain, said the Seneca situation may not be unique for long. There's concern that governments might help tribes build casinos by taking private land in both California and Ohio, he said.

Even without such help from state governments, Indian tribes nationwide have put forth off-reservation casino proposals that caught the attention of Congress. For example, in Clark County, Wash., the Cowlitz Tribe proposed an off-reservation casino on farmland not far from Portland, Ore.

"It would be Las Vegas-sized, the fifth-largest in America, towering over rural homes and farms in all directions," said Alvin Alexanderson, who testified before McCain's committee on behalf of a local group called Citizens Against Reservation Shopping.

Similarly, the Pokagon Tribe is planning a casino in New Buffalo, Mich., a town of 2,500 along Lake Michigan that clearly doesn't want it, said Liz Thomas of Taxpayers of Michigan Against Casinos. "What has happened to my community is not unique, and that's what makes it so sad," Thomas told McCain's committee. "It is not unusual or extraordinary because this nightmare is happening to towns all across America."

In response to such complaints, McCain has proposed revising the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act to strengthen casino regulation and require that tribes have some historic ties to the land they acquire for off-reservation casinos.

A similar bill has been proposed in the House, along with legislation that would place a two-year moratorium on the federal approval of new off-reservation gambling halls.

Those proposals draw strong opposition from American Indians and their supporters. "We view [McCain's proposal] as part of legislation that, overall, is destructive of tribal rights," said Ron His Horse Is Thunder, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, who testified before McCain's panel.

And Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii, disputed McCain's claim that off-reservation gambling is an unexpected phenomenon. "When the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act was passed, we clearly envisioned the possibility of off-reservation gaming and established a procedure to be followed," Inouye said in a statement. "That procedure is working."

Even if McCain's bill or any of the others passed Congress, they would have no impact in Buffalo, where the Interior Department last year quietly signed off on the Senecas' purchase of land for their casino.

e-mail: jzremski@buffnews.com.