A bus advertising the Eagle Mountain Casino, owned and operated by the Tule River Tribe in Porterville, California. Photo: David Seibold

Tule River Tribe pursues off-reservation casino amid big change in Washington

The Tule River Tribe is pursuing an off-reservation casino as the Trump administration seeks to change the rules of the game.

The tribe wants to move the Eagle Mountain Casino to a more lucrative site in California. Doing so requires approval by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in addition to the state.

While the effort has local support, it may run into obstacles at the federal level. In testimony to Congress on Wednesday, a senior official at the BIA said the promise of additional revenues won't be enough to justify approval of an off-reservation land-into-trust application.

The goal, according to John Tahsuda, a citizen of the Kiowa Tribe who serves as the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, is to be "more thoughtful" about off-reservation acquisitions. Distance from a tribe's headquarters, impacts on the local community and opportunities for tribal citizens are among the many factors on the table.

"We believe that, in the past, there have been times when greater consideration has been given to one factor over others," Tahsuda told the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on Wednesday. "Our commitment is to weigh all of the relevant factors and come to a fair and balanced conclusion based on all of the totality of the factors."

Indianz.Com on SoundCloud: Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Oversight Hearing October 4, 2017

The BIA has just started to review the environmental impact statement for the proposed move of Eagle Mountain. The process typically takes years to complete.

Meanwhile, the tribe has reached a new Class III compact with the state. The agreement includes language that calls on the parties to return to the negotiating table in the event the new casino is approved.

“The Tule River Tribe believes that the revised compact will be a great benefit to the tribe, its members, the city of Porterville and the county of Tulare,” Chairman Neil Peyron told The Porterville Recorder.

The agreement was finalized on the state level after California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signed Assembly Bill 394 into law on Tuesday. It can now be sent to the BIA for review and potential approval.

Compact decisions are typically separate from reviews of new casinos. But during his testimony on Wednesday, Tahsuda suggested that the Trump team might be taking a more broader look at a variety of issues affecting off-reservation developments.

"Some of those overlap," Tahsuda said, referring to land-into-trust approvals and compacts.

During the Bush administration, the BIA once rejected a compact because it merely envisioned an off-reservation casino. The official who made the decision, Jim Cason, is back at the Department of the Interior in the same role and has been granted authority over off-reservation land-into-trust applications.

The Tule River Tribe is pursuing its relocation under the two-part determination provisions of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. Since 1988, only four tribes have opened casinos after completing both steps of the process. A fifth is expected to open this year.

Read More on the Story:
Gaming compact officially ratified by governor (The Porterville Recorder October 5, 2017)

Federal Register Notice:
Notice of Intent To Prepare an Environmental Impact Statement for the Tule River Tribe's Proposed Fee-to-Trust and Eagle Mountain Casino Relocation Project, Tulare County, California (December 30, 2016)

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