In a decision that has the potential to revive the prospects of numerous long-dormant tribal gaming projects across the country, Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Larry Echo Hawk has affirmed that the Department of the Interior will continue to pursue a balanced course on off-reservation gaming and shelve key restrictive policies of former Secretary Dirk Kempthorne.

Speaking at a gathering of the National Congress of American Indians in Milwaukee, Echo Hawk announced to the audience of tribal leaders that on June 13, following extensive tribal consultations, he rescinded a 2008 memorandum that provided guidance on acquiring land in trust for gaming. That memo, written by Kempthorne, included a “commutability rule,” which stated that reservations must be within a “commutable distance’ of the proposed off-reservation gaming site.

Echo Hawk also confirmed that the DOI will move forward to process pending off-reservation gaming applications pursuant to current federal law and the department’s existing regulations, which set forth a number of criteria that must be met before off-reservation gaming can be approved.

“Our balanced and considered approach to reviewing off-reservation gaming applications was affirmed during deliberate consultation with tribal leaders,” Echo Hawk said. “The 2008 guidance memorandum was unnecessary and was issued without the benefit of tribal consultation. We will proceed to process off-reservation gaming applications in a transparent manner, consistent with existing law.”

Echo Hawk’s announcement was greeted positively and with caution by parties familiar with the issue of off-reservation projects.

Rory Dilweg, a Los Angeles-based attorney representing the Menominee Tribe of Wisconsin, which is seeking to build a $1 billion project in Kenosha, about 200 miles from its reservation, told The Day that the announcement by Echo Hawk was "very good news" for his clients. "They felt the denial (of their land-into-trust application) was unjust and that the guidance was illegal and they wanted a decision on the merits of their application. We can get that now."

Rep. Dan Boren, ranking Democrat on a House panel that oversees tribal issues, said Wednesday that it is too early to predict how a change in federal off-reservation gaming policy would affect Oklahoma. "Our tribes have very large geographic areas where they can put land in trust,'' he told the Tulsa World, adding the change may lead Oklahoma tribes to look at land outside the state for gaming.