PHOENIX — Federal officials on Thursday gave the Tohono O’odham Nation final permission to make land it owns near Glendale part of the reservation, a crucial step toward the tribe’s plans to build a casino there.
Kevin Washburn, assistant secretary of Indian affairs for the Department of Interior, said his agency has no choice but to agree to the tribe’s request to take the property “into trust.”
He said the tribe has met the legal requirements of a 1986 law allowing it to seek reservation status for the land, and there are no legal obstacles.
Chairman Ned Norris Jr. hailed the ruling as allowing his tribe to finally fully replace lands that were destroyed decades ago by a federal dam project. He said it paves the way for the tribe to build a $550 million complex near the Arizona Cardinals stadium anchored by a hotel and casino.
Thursday’s action was panned by officials of several other tribes that already have casinos in Maricopa County and could be financially harmed if the O’odham project goes forward.
Gregory Mendoza, governor of the Gila River Indian Community, also pointed out Washburn’s ruling is silent on the question of gaming. He said nothing in Thursday’s action allows the Tohono O’odham to erect and operate a casino on the site.
Foes have had little success in getting the courts to halt plans for the casino.
In a separate legal action, U.S. District Court Judge David Campbell specifically rejected arguments by the opposing tribes, the city of Glendale and the state that the 2002 voter-approved measure giving tribes the exclusive right to operate casinos in Arizona specifically prohibits construction of any new casinos in the Phoenix area. Campbell also brushed aside arguments by the state that the original 1986 law and any action to grant reservation status illegally infringe on the state’s sovereignty.
That could leave foes with only one move: congressional intervention.
Last year the U.S. House voted to deny the Tohono O’odham Nation the right to build a casino on the property until at least 2027 even if it got reservation status. But the fate of the measure is uncertain as the Senate has yet to take up the issue.
The fight traces its roots to that 1986 federal law, which gave the tribe $30 million to compensate for the loss of nearly 10,000 acres of reservation land near Gila Bend, which was flooded by a federal dam project. The law gave the tribe permission to purchase replacement property in Pima, Pinal or Maricopa counties.
The tribe bought about 135 acres near Glendale in 2003 under a corporate name and didn’t reveal the true ownership until it announced its casino plans in 2009 and asked the Interior Department to add the property to the reservation.
The tribe ended up seeking reservation status for only 53.5 acres where the casino would go.
Washburn rejected arguments Glendale’s annexation of land around the site precluded it from becoming part of the reservation.