Land-into-trust report points to tribe's impact

An environmental impact statement released by the Bureau of Indian Affairs on Friday highlights the wide reach of the Oneida Nation on the economy in New York.

The tribe lost nearly all of its 250,000-acre reservation through illegal land transactions. But in reacquiring more than 17,000 acres over the past 20 years, the tribe has emerged as a major player in two counties, according to the report.

The tribe employs more than 5,000 people through its casino, gas stations and various businesses. These employees paid about $5.6 million in property taxes last year and paid $3.4 million in incomes taxes to the state.

Spending by the employees generated another $8.5 million in revenue and taxes for the local economy. As the tribe's casino grows in the coming years, the impact is expected to reach $19 million by 2011.

Local businesses also benefit, according to the report. "Multiplier spending" by the tribe and employees generates over $30 million in earnings for the region.

But all of this could be wiped away unless the BIA takes land into trust for the tribe. The report outlines several options, ranging from all 17,000-plus acres to no acreage.

The last option presents the worst-case for the tribe. The state and federal government would be able to shut down the Turning Stone Resort and Casino because it doesn't sit on Indian land.

"This would create an extreme financial burden for the Nation," the report states. "There would be a significant total loss of jobs of 5,451 of which 4,714 are residents of Madison and Oneida Counties, causing related unemployment impacts there," it continues.

The report says the tribe would likely lose all of its land due to foreclosure proceedings, some of which have already been initiated by local governments. A federal judge has put them on hold as the case goes before the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals.

On the other end of the disaster spectrum lies the acquisition of all 17,000-plus acres. This covers the casino, the tribe's businesses, tribal housing, important cultural and archaeological sites and agricultural, hunting and fishing grounds.

Under this scenario, local governments would feel an "adverse" effect because the tribe won't have to pay property taxes. But the report notes the tribe has made $38.5 million in payments since 1995.

Another option would result in a total of 35,000 acres taken into trust. This include the 17,000-plus owned by the tribe plus additional lands that have yet to be specified.

But this action could increase the "checkerboarding" of Indian and non-Indian lands. "The New York state and local governments have asserted that this would create an adverse effect on their ability to cohesively plan and to uniformly enforce their zoning, land use, and environmental regulations," the report states.

Four other options would require the acquisition of some, but not all of the tribe's land base. But two of these would be "insufficient" while the other two would not be as drastic, according to the report.

The tribe submitted its application after the U.S. Supreme Court issued a critical ruling in March 2005. The court said the tribe can't reassert sovereignty within its 250,000-acre reservation without going through the land-into-trust process.

The decision prompted local governments to send tax bills to the tribe, some of which have been paid under agreements. Madison and Oneida counties are trying to foreclose on the tribe's land due to outstanding taxes.

The decision also led the 2nd Circuit to dismiss another land claim. The state and the counties are now saying the Oneida's claim to 250,000 should be thrown out of court.

The environmental impact statement, prepared by Malcolm Pirnie Inc., presents the history of the litigation but doesn't endorse a view held by some state and local officials that the Supreme Court decision outright bars the acquisition of the land.

The report also doesn't state whether the tribe must clear up the tax and foreclosure issues before the land is taken into trust, as one Bush administration official has suggested.

The BIA is taking public comments on the draft and will hold a public hearing on December 14 in Utica.

Draft Environmental Impact Statement:
Oneida Nation of New York Conveyance of Lands Into Trust (November 2006)

Relevant Links:
Oneida Nation Trust -
Indian Nation Fee-to-Trust Land Acquisition Applications in New York State -
Oneida Nation, New York -

Sherrill v. Oneida Nation Decision:
Syllabus | Opinion [Ginsburg] | Concurrence [Souter] | Dissent [Stevens]