Tuesday, November 28, 2006

BIA Bias . . .

Over the weekend the OD had a series of articles about the Oneida Indian Nation's Land into Trust application that is now pending before the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The articles centered around the recently released Bureau of Indian Affairs' analysis and Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS, written by a downstate New York-based consulting firm) of seven alternatives ranging from placing 35,000 acres into trust (i.e., the federal government would hold title to the acreage on behalf of the OIN who would exercise sovereignty over it) to placing none into trust.

The analysis' executive summary reveals that the alternatives center around three Nation-devised groupings of its currently-owned parcels: Group 1 for the Turning Stone Resort facilities, Group 2 for the Nation's governmental/cultural facilities and non-resort business enterprises, and Group 3 being agricultural or undeveloped parcels. The three groups total over 17,000 acres.

  • Alternative A places all 3 groups of currently own parcels in trust (17,000+ A).
  • Alternative B places all 3 groups of currently own parcels in trust plus an additional 17,000+ acres yet to be acquired (about 35,000 A).
  • Alternative C places only Groups 1 and 2 lands (Resort, and Governmental/cultural/business properties) in trust (almost 10,000 A).
  • Alternative D places only Group 1 (Resort) lands in trust (almost 3,500 A).
  • Alternative E places only a small part of Group 1 in trust: the Turning Stone Casino Gaming Floor Tax Lot (2 parcels - 225 acres).
  • Alternative F takes all of Group 1 and some parcels from Groups 2 and 3 to supposedly form a more compact grouping, but which essentially preserves all of OIN's businesses except for the Black Angus cattle ranch (almost 12,000 A).
  • Alternative G places no land in trust (0 A).
In discussing the environmental impacts of the alternatives the "analysis" is essentially a conclusory "no adverse impacts." NYS had previously made known its environmental concerns, but these have been given only cursory acknowledgement. New York State's concerns over not being able to adequately regulate the environment over a patchwork of interspersed Nation and non-Nation holdings are dismissed as the State's "assertions," followed up by a mention that the Nation has its own regulations. There is no assessment of whether or not the State's concerns are legitimate. This is unacceptable from a purely regulatory point of view. If the BIA were really concerned over environmental issues such as leaking storage tanks (pollution plumes know no boundaries other than geological), BIA should object to having NYS controlled lands interspersed with its own holdings under trust because OIN would be unable to enforce its rules on NYS lands. Of course, the parties tacitly recognize that NYS is really the only entity that has both regulations and an intent to enforce them. In fact, in today's online OD we find a letter from NYSDEC to BIA not only critiquing a preliminary draft of the DEIS but giving examples of how the OIN has not been a good steward of the environment. BIA apparently ignored this letter, too, since the current draft still does not address the state's concerns.

Either BIA bias, or extreme laziness on the part of its consultant, is evident.

While the grouping of OIN holdings according to OIN's perception of importance is useful to understanding OIN's position, no groupings are presented to reflect the importance to State/local government of keeping certain parcels OUT of the trust. For example, parcels in cities or villages (which were historical settlements of non-Indians that developed around some common purpose) could have been grouped to reflect their important values for non-Indians. Parcels in townships outside the cities and villages would be of lesser importance to non-Indian values, with undeveloped land being the least important. Looking at how OIN's groupings might intersect State/local-government groupings could have aided in identifying parcels over which an agreement might be possible. But this was not done.

The alternatives presented seem to have been chosen to reach an "all or nothing at all" result. Interestingly, it seems that BIA is more interested in placing ALL of OIN's business holdings in trust than it is in placing croplands, hunting grounds, and other properties important to preserving a "traditional" Oneida lifestyle in trust. It's really all about the money, isn't it?

The scattered nature of the OIN's holdings presents a challenge for both sides of the issue. There is no easy answer. We who live here recognize the good that OIN has done, and want to preserve it -- But we also want to preserve our own way of life, too. There will always be those who will never agree to anything, but there are others who want to resolve the issue for the good of everyone, but need a better analysis of the facts before they would be able to agree to anything. Lack of agreement will only land the matter back in Court. There is a pretty good indication from the Sherrill case that the Court recognizes that OIN can't turn the clock's hands back 200 years, but the Court could turn them back 40 years. That would be bad both for the OIN and for us non-Oneidas. Agreement is the only answer, and the BIA needs to show leadership in that regard.

BIA's DEIS only examines the trust issue from OIN's perspective. BIA is there to resolve conflicts, not take sides. It needs to do more.

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