Sonoma and Napa county officials continue to fight an Alexander Valley tribe's efforts to gain federal recognition, fearing it will open the door to another North Bay casino.
The counties last week formally appealed a judge's decision that removed them from the Mishewal Wappo lawsuit that seeks tribal recognition.
"They're looking for a site here, or in Napa Valley, to put into trust and build another casino," said Jeff Brax, an attorney for Sonoma County, who argues the counties have a legitimate role in the litigation.
But Wappo Tribal Chairman Scott Gabaldon continues to downplay any plans for a gambling hall if the tribe gets restored.
"I understand why they want to fight restoration. They don't want a casino, or potential casino," he said. "We've never mentioned the casino. We've always said it's just an option."
He said that through formal recognition the Wappos will be eligible to obtain elder housing and youth education benefits.
He maintained the tribe is only seeking surplus federal property, which is not in the counties' jurisdictions.
"I don't understand how they think they have a dog in this fight. They don't have one," Gabaldon said.
In their lawsuit filed in 2009 against Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, the Wappos say the federal government acted unlawfully when it disbanded the tribe in 1959 along with numerous other California tribes.
The former Alexander Valley Rancheria, their 54-acre reservation on a bend of the Russian River northeast of Healdsburg, is now in private hands.
In addition to federal status and benefits, the tribe is seeking to obtain land somewhere in its aboriginal territory in Sonoma County or Napa County.
Deputy County Counsel Brax said the restored Indian lands will be tantamount to getting approval to develop Las Vegas-style gambling.
Skeptics point out that despite Gabaldon's assertion there are no plans for a casino, Wappo tribal representatives have attended casino development conferences.
But the tribal chairman on Friday said he goes to conferences on a wide range of topics.
"I'm at an Indian health conference now," he said during a phone interview from the Jackson Rancheria casino.
He said the counties have managed to delay the tribe's formal recognition, a lifelong dream of tribal elders like his mother, who died in June.
"It will get done," he said of recognition, but in the meantime "elders will keep dying."
The counties in 2010 intervened in the Wappos' lawsuit, arguing the tribe shouldn't be allowed to remove land from their jurisdictions without local approval.
They asked the federal court to dismiss the Wappos' case, alleging the group waited too long to file their complaint. The counties also questioned the group's legitimacy, saying the Wappos don't qualify as a tribe under federal rules.
But the court declined to dismiss the tribe's lawsuit.
And U.S. District Judge Edward Davila ruled in late September that the counties cannot be intervenors in the Wappos' lawsuit.
"The tribe now seeks lands already held by the Department of the Interior and not currently in the possession of the counties," Davila stated. "This change seemingly nullifies any interest the counties may have in sovereignty, taxation, land use or regulatory power."
Gabaldon said the tribe hasn't even identified what surplus federal land it wants.
But Brax said once the tribe is restored, it could seek a reservation or rancheria that need not be federal land.