Federal policy shift makes proposed Routt County casino possible
Steamboat Springs — The prospect of an Indian casino in Hayden is much likelier as a result of a June 2011 policy shift at the federal level that removed a Bush-era requirement that such casinos be in close proximity to the reservations of the tribes that own and operate them.
In fact, almost as many off-reservation casinos have been approved in the past year as had been approved in the previous 23 years.
An off-reservation casino is what’s being proposed on land adjacent to Yampa Valley Regional Airport in Hayden. Although the group behind the proposal has not yet identified the tribe that eventually would own the casino, the closest reservation of any kind is more than 150 miles away.
That distance is much less important these days.
The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, enacted in 1988, established the framework for Indian gaming regulations and assigned roles to federal and state governments. It also created limited opportunities to build casinos for tribes that did not have reservations or tribal lands, said Steve Light, a political scientist and co-director of the Institute for the Study of Tribal Gaming Law & Policy at the University of North Dakota.
Light said that the Indian gaming industry saw exponential growth in the late 1990s to early 2000s but that tribes were focused on building casinos on their own land. This way, tribes avoided the lengthy, costly and complicated approval process of building casinos away from reservations. Some tribes, though, tried to get off-reservation approvals in an effort to build casinos near more populated areas.
Most of the proposals went nowhere. That was the case in 1999, when the Northern Ute Indian Tribe approached the town of Hayden about building a casino near YVRA. The Hayden Town Board voted down the proposal, and an application never was submitted to the U.S. Department of the Interior, which decides whether requirements have been met, whether the casino is “in the best interest of the tribe and its members” and whether a casino “would not be detrimental to the surrounding community.” If approved at the federal level, the project then would need approval from the governor of Colorado.
“There are very high hurdles for any tribe to meet,” Light said. “It’s uncommon for that to occur. It’s only happened a few times.”
Between 1988 and 2011, only five tribes won approvals to build off-reservation casinos, but in the past year, there have been four more approvals.
By 2004, Light said, some politicians began to question whether Indian gaming was becoming too successful, and they were concerned about a proliferation of “reservation shopping,” or tribal efforts to build casinos away from existing reservations.
In response, the Bush administration in 2008 came out with a “guidance memo” that changed the way off-reservation casinos were approved.
“That memo was really controversial,” Light said. “It looked to a lot of people like a real policy change.”
The memo stated that off-reservation casinos had to be within a “commutable distance” to the reservation, but it did not define that requirement.
“What the heck is a commutable distance anyway?” Light said. “It didn’t make a lot of sense to tribes.”
The administration’s rationale for the commutable distance requirement was that tribal members should be able to work at the casino and should not be forced to move away from the reservation to work there.
After the memo was released, 22 pending tribal applications were denied, according to a paper co-authored by Light.
After President Barack Obama took office, U.S Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar directed Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Larry Echo Hawk to revisit the gaming policy in an effort to move “forward with processing applications.”
The commutable distance requirement was removed in June 2011. Echo Hawk made the announcement, saying “the 2008 guidance memorandum was unnecessary and was issued without the benefit of tribal consultation.”
The directive once again created the opportunity for a casino to be built near YVRA, which is about 160 miles from the nearest Indian reservation.
When the commutable distance requirement was removed, some thought it would create a flood of applications for off-reservation casinos. Light doesn’t think that’s the case because the approval process remains as rigorous as it was before 2008.
Still, four tribes have won approvals for casinos in the past year. Steamboat Springs resident Steve Hofman, who is part of the Sleeping Giant Group that wants to build the casino in Hayden, sees this as a sign that processing the applications now is a higher priority.
“I understood this was a difficult process but nonetheless one that has possibility to it,” Hofman acknowledged.
“In less than a year, there have been four approvals. Clearly, the regulatory process is improving.”
To reach Matt Stensland, call 970-871-4247 or email mstensland@SteamboatToday.com
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