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 The Sacramento Bee by Todd Milbourn -- Bee Staff Writer  June 11, 2006

Tribes Look Far Afield For Casino Sites 

Bills in Congress could block the trend and rewrite gaming rules.

An Indian tribe rooted in Lake County is pushing a Las Vegas-style casino in the
East Bay.

Tribes from Humboldt and San Diego counties are vying to open casinos along busy
Interstate 15 in Barstow.

And a tribe from Oklahoma is searching beyond its reservation -- even across
state lines -- to build a casino near Denver.

Across the country, Indian tribes, often backed by wealthy investors, are
aspiring to build casinos in lucrative markets -- even if those spots bear
little or no historic connection to the tribe.

The trend is often assailed as "reservation shopping." It's stoking a national
debate that might reshape the $20 billion-a-year Indian gaming industry.
Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Tracy, and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., are leading the
charge to corral the practice. Both argue that some tribes and their non-Indian
backers are simply trying to get rich off a law intended to alleviate tribal
poverty.

"This is not what the public thought they were getting when they approved Indian
gaming," said Alison Harvey, executive director of the California Tribal
Business Alliance, a Sacramento-based tribal gambling association that generally
opposes off-reservation gaming. "It's coming to a head."

California already is the nation's largest Indian gambling state, home to 55
casinos that generate $13 billion a year, according to the state attorney
general.

Across the state, at least 40 tribes are proposing off-reservation casinos,
according to Stand Up for California, a Penryn-based gambling watchdog group.
Almost all of those proposals face long odds -- even under current law. Even so,
opponents of casino expansion are paying close attention, recalling that tribal
gambling interests have proved adept at finding loopholes.

The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act generally restricts casinos to tribal lands
established before the act took effect on Oct. 17, 1988. Only a handful of
tribes have successfully navigated a labyrinth of federal and state rules to
obtain permission to build casinos beyond their reservations.

The difficulty of the approval process, coupled with growing political
opposition to off-reservation gambling, has spurred some observers to argue that
fears of an off-reservation casino boom are overhyped.

"The law as written makes it very, very tough," said Anthony Miranda, chairman
of the California Nations Indian Gaming Association, a coalition of gaming and
non-gaming tribes that does not take an official stance on off-reservation
casinos.

Only three U.S. tribes ever have secured state and federal approval required for
an off-reservation casino, Miranda said. Another two dozen have been authorized
using legal exceptions, which include provisions for tribes rendered landless in
the past and tribes whose federal recognition was restored after the deadline.

The Bay Area's Casino San Pablo emerged thanks to Rep. George Miller,
D-Martinez, who tacked its approval onto an omnibus Indian bill in 2000.
Howard Dickstein, a Sacramento attorney who represents the region's largest
gambling tribes, said most of the current proposals are merely investor-fueled
speculation.

He noted that both Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the federal Department of the
Interior have taken tougher stances on off-reservation casinos in recent years.
Some local communities have grown leery, too. For instance, Amador County
residents overwhelmingly said "no" to more casinos in a non-binding advisory
vote in 2005.

"Most of these are pie in the sky," Dickstein said of the proposals. "If
anything, the climate in this country on gaming is going the other direction --
they want to take away what's already out there.

"It's not like it was 15 years ago when most tribes had reservation land and
simply built casinos on it," Dickstein continued. "Now you have to deal with a
very skeptical federal and state government and newly empowered local
governments that are focused on mitigating impacts."

Yet tribes like the Scotts Valley Band of Pomo Indians continue to roll the
dice.

Backed by Florida investors, the tribe is pushing for a Vegas-style casino with
2,000 slot machines in Richmond. The tribe's ancestral land is more than 100
miles away in rural Lake County.

Tribal chairman Don Arnold insists the tribe has historic ties to the Bay Area,
pointing to a never-ratified 1851 treaty that ceded Indian lands that once
reached into the North Bay.

His pitch often draws on the tragic history of California Indians: His
201-member tribe was terminated in the late 1950s and restored, without land, in
1991.

"The tribes that are trying to set up casinos without a reservation are the ones
who were treated the worst; they were the ones who were raped, starved and
terminated," said Arnold. "The most important thing here is that Indian gaming
was created for benefit of Native Americans in this country, not for cities,
counties or other people involved."

Some Bay Area residents object to the Scotts Valley and other proposals, saying
a proliferation of urban casinos would harm the economy, attract crime and
further depress poor areas.

"What you have here is a blatant land grab," said Conor Lee of the East Bay
Coalition Against Urban Casinos, a citizens group. "It's investors from outside
of California coming in and finding a small tribe, giving the tribe backing,
bringing in some hired guns who know how to work the system and basically trying
to make millions and millions of dollars."

McCain, chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, says he's trying to
avoid those scenarios. His bill essentially would eliminate off-reservation
gambling for tribes with their own reservation land, with exceptions for some
tribes that already have applied.

The bill still would allow landless or newly recognized tribes to build casinos
on land to which they have historical, geographical and other ties. But it would
tighten restrictions and require more public input.

Pombo, who is pushing his own restrictive proposal, declined requests for an
interview.

On the state level, Assemblywoman Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, is pushing to give
communities more say over casinos.

She said the East Bay has become the nation's "poster child" for urban,
off-reservation gambling.

"They do produce some jobs," Hancock said of urban casinos. "But if you have a
$100 million profit at a casino, most of that is coming out of the pockets of
local people. About 35 percent of it is going to investors in Las Vegas or
Florida, and the rest is not being distributed in the community."
The city of Barstow sees it differently.

City leaders there are seeking out distant tribes to build casinos. They say
gambling would provide an economic boost for the city, a Mojave Desert way
station along Interstate 15 that has struggled with unemployment.

Despite his stated aversion to off-reservation gambling, Schwarzenegger is
supporting the effort of the Big Lagoon Rancheria of Humboldt County to get a
Barstow casino. By offering a Barstow casino, the thinking goes, the tribe won't
build a casino in the environmentally sensitive Big Lagoon area, a pristine
swath of coastal Humboldt County that's home to bald eagles and peregrine
falcons.

The Los Coyotes Band of San Diego County also is vying for a Barstow casino.
The Barstow projects still face hurdles, though, including approval from the
Legislature.

Critics contend the deal could spark a host of "environmentally sensitive" land
claims. Others see it as an example of the state exercising more control over
gambling.

"If you're going to have gambling, you've got to take the bull by the horns,"
said Cheryl Schmit, founder and executive director of Stand Up For California.
"If you don't, the casinos will just run us over as they have in the past."

California voters gave Indian tribes a monopoly on Vegas-style gaming by passing
Proposition 1A in 2000. Six years later, gambling has grown into one of the
state's largest industries.

Casinos have paid for health clinics and schools. They've also enriched
non-Indian investors and turned tribes into political powerhouses that lavish
millions on state and national candidates.

Pombo has received $165,947 from casino and gambling interests so far in the
2005-2006 election cycle, more than any other member of Congress, according to
the Center for Responsive Politics. Pombo is a point person on Indian gaming as
chairman of the House Resources Committee.

Dickstein, the tribal attorney, acknowledged that further expansion carries
risks. If tribes push too far, he said, the state could move toward approving
commercial gambling statewide.

"It's unwise for tribes to float proposals willy-nilly," he said. "Ultimately,
it's a short-term view that risks the future of the industry."

  About the writer:
    The Bee's Todd Milbourn can be reached at (916) 321-1063 or
    tmilbourn@sacbee.com.
 

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