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Los Coyotes Band of Indians Still Gamely Trying to Build Casino

The federal government is forcing a local American Indian band to rethink its unique business plan.

The Los Coyotes Band of Cahuilla and Cupe & #324;o Indians has long wanted to get into the Southern California casino game.

But the federal Department of the Interior turned the plan down in January. The problem: The proposed casino would be in Barstow, some 115 miles from the Los Coyotes reservation in rural San Diego County.

The Interior Department said in January that a casino site has to be a reasonable commuting distance from the reservation.

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Los Coyotes cried foul, saying the government made up a new rule. In a Jan. 6 press release, the tribe said it would pursue legal options as well as try to get help from Congress.


Not Suited For Development

An attempt to reach a Los Coyotes spokeswoman last week was unsuccessful. In its press release, the Los Coyotes band said the casino would offer needed economic development for the tribe.

By Los Coyotes’ own admission, its reservation near Warner Springs is “remote and desolate,” and unsuitable for economic development. The Pacific Crest Trail and state Route 79 run to the west. Borrego Springs lies down the mountains, several miles to the east.

Since 2001, the tribe has been working with the city of Barstow on a casino that could draw traffic from Interstate 15.

The partnership enjoyed political support from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the California Coastal Commission (which did not want a casino on Big Lagoon’s coastal reservation), and organized labor.

Yet the Department of the Interior dealt the project a setback.

The federal agency matters because it has final say on what land may become part of an American Indian reservation. And that’s a deal-breaker for casino operators. California, like many states, allows Las Vegas-style gambling only on American Indian reservations.


Just A Short-Term Problem?

One attorney, Sam Cohen, said that the commutable distance rule may only stand for the short term.

Writing in the February issue of Indian Gaming magazine, Cohen said that “rejecting applications based on a new standard that was not previously articulated seems rather harsh and unfair.”

Cohen, who works for the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians in Santa Barbara County, also said the federal agency determined that 70 miles was a reasonable distance to commute. That is what the United Keetoowah Band of Oklahoma proposed. The government denied the Keetoowah application for another reason.

The Interior Department used the commuting rule to turn down applications from 10 American Indian tribes. Six , including Big Lagoon , wanted to build at least 300 miles from their reservations. One wanted to build 1,500 miles away.

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