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California casino proposals approved

SAN FRANCISCO — The Obama administration has approved casino proposals from two California tribes under a rarely granted exception to the federal law that prohibits gaming on reservations established after 1988.

The U.S. Department of Interior on Friday approved the Enterprise Rancheria of Maidu Indians’ proposed 1,700-machine casino and 170-room hotel in the Northern California city of Marysville and the North Fork Rancheria’s 2,500-machine casino and 200-room hotel in the Central Valley city of Madera.

Both the tribes’ proposed gaming sites are dozens of miles away from their current reservations and put them closer to urban centers. The Enterprise Rancheria casino would be 40 miles north of Sacramento. The North Fork proposal would put it 30 miles north of Fresno, according to the Department of Interior.

Federal officials said the projects would benefit the tribes economically without hurting the surrounding community.

“Both tribes have historical connections to the proposed gaming sites, and both proposals have strong support from the local community, which are important factors in our review,” Larry Echo Hawk, assistant secretary of the interior for Indian Affairs, said in a statement about the decisions.

But Doug Elmets, who represents half a dozen California tribes that already have casinos, said the decision sets a dangerous precedent.

“It’s a horrible, flawed policy that is now going to allow tribes to build casinos away from their aboriginal territory simply for economic gain,” he said. “And probably more importantly, it opens the floodgates of urban gaming throughout California, if not the nation.”

Under the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, tribes can build casinos on reservations that existed before Oct. 17, 1988, but not on lands taken into trust after that date.

The law allows the Secretary of Interior to make an exception in cases where the off-reservation acquisition is in the tribe’s best interest and does not hurt the surrounding community.

There have been only a handful of such exceptions granted since 1988, according to Kathryn Rand, co-director of the Institute for the Study of Tribal Gaming Law and Policy at the University of North Dakota.

Rand said Friday’s decisions by the Obama administration reflect a change in the federal government’s approach to off-reservation gaming from the Bush administration.

The Bush Interior Department in 2008 all but ruled out approval of tribal casinos that are not within commuting distance of reservations. It rejected applications from more than 20 tribes, including one for a casino 1,400 miles from the reservation.

“The Bush administration was leaning in the direction that distance mattered more than anything else,” Rand said.

Distance from the reservation remains a factor for the Obama White House, she said. The Interior Department on Friday also rejected a casino proposal from the Pueblo of Jemez, which had proposed a casino on land close to El Paso, Texas, nearly 300 miles from its reservation in New Mexico. Federal officials cited concerns about the tribe’s ability to oversee land that was so far away. Tribal officials have said they are reviewing their options.

But Rand said overall, the administration appeared to be taking a more pragmatic, case-by-case approach.

The Enterprise Rancheria and North Fork Rancheria proposals are now before California Gov. Jerry Brown, who has one year to decide whether to approve them. The projects would also need state legislative approval, according to Charles Banks-Altekruse, a spokesman for the tribes.

“We’re confident that the governor shares our goal of bringing jobs and business opportunity and community investment to California,” Banks-Altekruse said.

Evan Westrup, a spokesman for Brown, said the governor will review the decisions in the months ahead. “Each proposal will be assessed individually, and our office will continue to engage all stakeholders to ensure the interests of the tribes, local communities and the people of California are all considered,” he said.

The Interior Department on Friday also rejected a casino proposal from the Guidiville Band of Pomo Indians, which had sought a gaming facility in the San Francisco Bay Area city of Richmond, more than 100 miles from its existing tribal lands.

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