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PD Editorial: Don’t relax standards for tribes, casinos

California is home to 109 recognized Indian tribes operating 71 gaming facilities, including the River Rock Casino in Alexander Valley and the Graton Resort and Casino that opened nine months ago near Rohnert Park.

Few can argue that the Golden State is in need of more.

But that would be the likely outcome if new rule changes take effect that would ease the ability of tribes to attain federal recognition and have land taken into trust. The changes proposed in May by the Interior Department would alter the criteria used to determine federal recognition of Indian tribes and shorten the timespan usually required for federal evaluation of tribal identities.

Under current regulations, American Indian tribes are granted federal recognition and sovereign-nation status if they can demonstrate that they are an established social community with roots that date back to 1789, when the U.S. government was formally established.

The proposed regulations would require tribes to demonstrate only that their roots date back as far as 1934, when tribes were first recognized by the federal government as independent political entities.

The anti-gaming group Stand Up for California contends the change could result in the recognition of 34 Indian tribes in California and the development of 22 more casinos. Currently, there are 68 Indian groups in the state awaiting word on their applications for federal recognition.

Some local government officials are also concerned that the change would give tribes that have already be denied federal recognition another chance to receive sovereign-nation status and to build casinos.

Government officials contend the rule change would further constrain the input of local governments in an application-review process that, as demonstrated by recent petitions involving local tribes, is largely cloaked in secrecy.

With those concerns in mind, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday passed a resolution opposing the rule change, arguing that any rules changes “must not compromise the integrity of the (Indian Affairs) Bureau’s decisions to recognize a group as an Indian tribe nor should it eliminate a county’s voice in the federal acknowledgment process.” The public comment period is slated to end Sept. 30.

The change is concerning at the local level because once land is taken into trust by the federal government, it’s no longer governed by local land-use regulations. Tribes also are no longer obliged to pay taxes on the land or fees for developing it, although local jurisdictions may still be obligated to provide public safety and other basic services.

But not all tribes are alike when it comes to recognizing their links to local governments and school district s. The Graton tribe, for example, has set a high standard in terms of revenue sharing, agreeing to contribute nearly $500 million to the county, Rohnert Park and local schools to help mitigate the impacts of the new casino. Meanwhile, the Lytton Band of Pomo Indians, operators of a San Pablo casino, has offered Windsor schools $1 million as mitigation for its plans to build 147 homes and a cultural center just south of Windsor on River Road.

Recognized Indians tribes contribute to the fabric of communities in many beneficial ways. But the Interior Department has failed to explain or justify the need for changing a process that has been in effect for 36 years, and doing so in such a dramatic way.

This is one more gamble California doesn’t need. This rule change should be spiked.

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