BIA public hearing gets heated
By Christopher Caskey / The Citizen
Thursday, June 18, 2009 12:13 AM EDT
Jill Connor / The Citizen
SENECA FALLS - Bureaucratic acronyms were not very popular Wednesday night at New York Chiropractic College, as hundreds of people descended on the school's gym to decry the BIA and its DEIS on an application by the CIN.
Government officials, business representatives and residents alike voiced their opinions during a public hearing on the Cayuga Indian Nation's application to put approximately 130 acres of land in Cayuga and Seneca counties into federal trust.
The hearing was organized by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, which was seeking comment on its recently released Draft Environmental Impact Statement concerning the application.
Speakers at the hearing were overwhelmingly opposed to putting land into trust. Not a single member of the public had voiced support for the Cayugas by 9 p.m., though there were still many people in line to talk three hours into the hearing.
Most speakers took exception with what they called flaws in the BIA's environmental report, which states that effects on the local environment, infrastructure and economy would be negligible at most if the land is put into trust.
The 77 people who signed up to talk had a wide array of concerns. But four larger issues came up over and over again:
* The effect on public services and local taxpayers if the land comes off the tax rolls.
* The inability of local businesses to compete if Cayuga-owned stores can sell gas and cigarettes without charging sales tax.
* The worry that the nation will open and expand gambling operations.
* Possible environmental effects stemming from the fact that any development or business on federal-trust land does not have to follow state zoning or environmental regulations.
Cayuga County Legislator George Fearon called the BIA's draft impact statement “grossly deficient” while speaking during the hearing. The report, Fearon said, looks at current economic and environmental data without projecting to what could happen after the land achieves federal trust status.
“When something that is supposed to last forever is set up, how can values and projections be made based on current and past statistics?” he asked.
Though the event was a government hearing, it often resembled a political rally. Attendees shouted and applauded when speakers made strong statements against the Cayugas, the BIA or the land trust.
One such speaker was Brad Jones, who tried to address the crowd and turned his back to the BIA representatives when he reached the podium. Loud boos were hurled at the representatives when they turned off Jones' microphone and told him to direct his comments to the BIA.
“It really has nothing to do with Native Americans,” Jones said of the land trust application after finally turning around. “It has to do with two groups, politicians and lawyers.”
State and federal officials also voiced their opinions through staffers who read prepared statements. Members of the state assembly Gary Finch and Brian Kolb both oppose the land trust application, as does state Sen. Michael Nozzolio. U.S. Rep. Michael Arcuri's and Sen. Charles Schumer's statements also criticized putting land into trust, though they both called for a settlement reached by both parties.
A representative from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's office was booed by the crowd when she said she was at the hearing to listen and relay the responses back to the senator.
If the non-adjacent properties owned by the Cayuga Indian Nation are put into federal trust, the properties are removed from tax rolls and become exempt from local laws and regulations.
Cayuga representatives have said in the past that these lands are part of a reservation already recognized by the federal government.
A handful of representatives from the Cayuga Indian Nation attended the hearing, and Clint Halftown made a statement at the very beginning of the meeting. Halftown said the Treaty of Canandaigua established Cayuga land as a sovereign reservation in 1794.
“This treaty remains valid, and our reservation continues to exist to this day,” Halftown said while reading the statement.
The public hearing is part of a public review and comment period on the draft environmental study. The public will be able to make written comments through July 6 before the final environmental statement is released.
At that point, the BIA will decide whether to allow the land to be placed into trust.
Staff writer Christopher Caskey can be reached at 253-5311 ext. 282 or firstname.lastname@example.org