North Coast Journal

COVER STORY - May 1996

Gamble on Big Lagoon

by Jim Hight


The biggest entertainment and tourism development on the North Coast is coming to the shores of Big Lagoon, brought to you by one of the smallest Indian tribes in California.

Opening in two phases beginning this summer, the Big Lagoon Casino has been designed by Alan Lapidus Associates, architects for Donald Trump and Disney World. It will hold as many as 1,200 people.

Along with bingo, slots, video poker and the usual table games, the casino will draw guests with live entertainment, full liquor service, a restaurant and a choice view of the lagoon.

And that's just the beginning.

Bankrolled by an aggressive casino investor, the 17-member Big Lagoon Rancheria is acquiring more than 130 acres of adjacent wooded land for development. Its favored "conceptual possibility": a resort with two hotels, an 18-hole golf course and RV park.

All of which makes the rancheria's neighbors extremely nervous.

Fulltime residents and cabin owners who share the lagoon's southern shores and nearby ocean bluffs worry about traffic, noise and light from the 24-hour casino complex. And they -- along with county health officials and state park biologists -- fear that the casino's sewage will pollute the groundwater and the lagoon.

The usual concerns about a big new development in any neighborhood are compounded in Big Lagoon by the fact that the rancheria's status as a sovereign entity frees it from any regulation by state or local government.

"It's everybody's worst nightmare come true," says Dan Frost, a Redding attorney who owns a cabin in the Big Lagoon Park Corp., an old neighborhood of 76 privately owned cabins.

"What we have are developers and gamblers coming into an area to do anything that they please, regardless of its effect on their neighbors and on the environment," says Frost.

The rancheria's chairman insists the casino development will respect the lagoon's environment.

"I have four generations living at the rancheria -- grandfather, mother and father, me and my kids," says Virgil Moorehead. "We plan on staying there the rest of our lives to say that we're going to go in there and tear it up, pollute the lagoon, is ludicrous."


Big Lagoon is big, and popular with fishers, boaters, duck hunters and swimmers. The three-mile sand spit separating it from the ocean provides excellent beach walking, driftwood collecting and agate hunting, with spectacular views of the sea, the lagoon and the redwood-covered hills.

The lagoon usually opens to the sea several times a year at its north end, making for "brackish" water that accommodates salmon and steelhead along with freshwater cutthroat trout and some salt-water species like flounder. Such rich aquatic life draws thousands of migrating shorebirds; the entire lagoon is a state wildlife area and the land around it is mostly state park. The main public access is at Big Lagoon County Park on the south, just west of the rancheria and casino site.

Controversy isn't new to the lagoon. At a recent county hearing, water and jet skiers protested 5 mph speed limits, while others called the noisy watercraft a nuisance to wildlife and a threat to swimmers.

But speed limits are small change compared with the big-money battle brewing over what may become the largest coastal resort development between San Francisco and Coos Bay. And unlike other recent controversies over land development, this fight was over -- well, almost over -- before it started.

Like any other federally recognized Indian tribe, the Big Lagoon Rancheria has a special sovereign status. It's not empowered to violate criminal laws or conduct diplomacy with foreign countries, but for most purposes the rancheria makes its own laws for its own land and people.

"We are a government," says Moorehead. And a few years ago the government of Big Lagoon Rancheria decided it wanted to explore developing a casino, just as the state has a lottery to raise money.

The era of commercial tribal casinos was inaugurated in 1988 with the passage by Congress of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. IGRA allows tribes to establish casinos on tribal land as long as they draft and receive approval for a gaming ordinance from the National Indian Gaming Commission.

As tribal casinos have proven successful, they seem to have sprung up everywhere. There are two in Humboldt County -- Cher-Ae Heights in Trinidad and the Lucky Bear in Hoopa -- and rancherias in Blue Lake and Loleta have said they plan to develop casinos on their land. The attorney general's office -- which contends tribal gaming is illegal but can't act because it lacks jurisdiction -- estimates there about three dozen in the entire state.

Angry over what he calls "misinformation and rumors" about the casino project, Tribal Chair Moorehead was initially reluctant to provide any facts beyond the bare description of a 44,000-square-foot, 1,000-seat casino outlined in his March 28 press release. But after a couple of phone conversations, he agreed to sit down for an in-depth interview.

Meeting in the rancheria's Hotel Arcata office, the soft-spoken, 36-year-old former McKinleyville High wrestler was joined by his father, Ted, and by Alfred Salazar, owner of Spirit Gaming Inc., the tribe's consultant and financial backer for the casino.

With artist's renderings and floor plans in hand, the three described a casino in the grand style of Vegas or Reno rather than the boxy, windowless -- albeit popular -- casinos common on most Indian lands. "We're going to have entertainment, a restaurant and lounge," says Moorehead. "It's going to be a first-class, quality casino."

"This is not going to be another smoke-filled casino like some of these other temporary facilities," adds Salazar. "It will have a ceiling height of about 50 feet with a multi-level interior. And it sits right on the lagoon."

The cost of building the casino will be between $8 million and $10 million, a large chunk of work for local firms, which Moorehead is happy to list: McKenny & Sons, Oscar Larson & Associates, DL Fox Construction, Walter B. Sweet, Eureka Ready Mix Concrete Co. and Myrtletown Lumber & Supply. He estimates 200 to 300 persons will be employed once the casino opens.

While the rancheria has some assets, notably the Hotel Arcata, which it acquired with the assistance of Arcata economic development officials, the millions required to build what's envisioned at Big Lagoon come from Spirit Gaming. "We're the ones with the money," says Salazar.

The Denver-based company has grown rapidly from a small partnership into a large publicly held company which will soon appear on the NASDAQ stock exchange, according to Salazar. The firm has backed several other large tribal casinos, notably, the Spa, a four-star hotel developed into a casino resort by the Cahuilla tribe near Palm Springs. Spirit is also a major investor in a Wisconsin gambling enterprise owned by the Oneida Nation, which grossed $172 million in 1995, according to the LaCrosse Tribune.

Salazar is the first to describe the potential development on more than 130 acres the tribe is in the process of acquiring. "The rancheria is looking toward the future," he says. "The overall plan calls for two hotels, an 18-hole golf course, a small RV site, gas station and convenience store."

A little more reluctant to predict such a large development, Moorehead explains that "this is one conceptual possibility we're looking at. The tribe has not finalized a master plan yet. The only thing definite is the casino."

In terms of land acquisition, however, a five-acre parcel south of Lynda Lane has been purchased and three parcels of more than 130 acres in all (most of which is owned by Louisiana-Pacific) are in escrow to Big Lagoon Development Corp., an entity set up by the rancheria and Salazar.


Given such ambitious plans, one question becomes obvious: How will the casino draw enough visitors to justify such an investment, especially with the popular Cher-Ae Heights casino just six miles south?

"We did a professional feasibility study with Hospitality Services in Los Angeles," says Salazar. "They gave us the statistics about the number of visitors (to the county) and the market for available discretionary gambling dollars in the area. They recommended a configuration of services that would let us compete in the market."

Even a competitor, Dale Risling, tribal chairman of the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation, acknowledges that "a nice casino probably would do well if it's designed comfortably and has a restaurant A lot of casinos are just bingo halls with a little casino area, and most of them don't sell liquor."


Up on Big Lagoon, the neighbors, local officials and state park and Fish and Game biologists aren't worried about the Big Lagoon Casino floundering in a saturated gambling market. Quite the opposite. They're worried about seeing their beloved lagoon turned into a North Coast version of Lake Tahoe. Or seeing the lagoon polluted or the groundwater rendered undrinkable from thousands of toilet flushes per day.

"I've been going up there for 68 years and I would hate to see the commercialism that's coming," says Eureka resident Helen Person, a cabin-owner. "I'd also hate to see anything happen to the lagoon (or the groundwater). I don't know how they are going to be able to have many, many customers and have their sewage treated properly."

"There is a great potential for an environmental disaster there if things are not done properly," says Dennis Kalson, county environmental health director. "Where do you (dispose of large quantities of sewage) on a piece of property like Big Lagoon? Can you do that without polluting the aquifers or the lagoon itself? I can't answer those questions, and I hope that they've planned all this beforehand. If not we'll have to deal with the aftermath."

The specter of runaway sewage problems from a tribal casino built without county review came to life a couple years ago in the small town of Rumsey, Calif., near Clearlake.

"(The Cash Creek Indian Bingo casino) put in a septic system that was not sized adequately to accommodate all the customers they had. It ran over and raw sewage ran down the hillside onto a highway," said Tom To, Yolo County director of Environmental Health. At the county's request, the problem was quickly corrected, says To, who believes it happened because the casino drew far more guests than its builders -- the Wintun tribe -- anticipated.

But if its sewage plans had been reviewed prior to building, "that would have solved the problem before it started," he says.

The possibility of casino sewage polluting groundwater has alarmed people in the Loleta area, where the Rohnerville Rancheria recently announced plans to construct a casino on Singley Hill.

The county and the Indian Health Service had assisted the rancheria in designing a septic system for a small housing development, but when the tribe announced plans to build a casino on the same site, concern and confusion escalated. Who would review the tribe's plans? Would any government entity -- aside from the rancheria itself -- be responsible?

"The environmental assessment for that area talked about a maximum buildout for that piece of property being 14 to 20 homes," remarks First District Supervisor Stan Dixon. "That's all the soil could tolerate for an environmentally sound septic system How can anyone suggest that a casino that employs several hundred people and accommodates from 2,000 to 4,000 visitors a week (as the tribe predicted) could operate there safely?"

Dixon says he wrote and telephoned repeatedly to the National Indian Gaming Commission, the agency that must sign off on tribal gaming ordinances before casinos can be built. He finally reached someone in authority and heard that "the commission does have jurisdiction and the proj ect is subject to the National Environmental Policy Act NEPA requires that they look at environmental impact of sewage disposal and water quality and traffic issues."

After informing NIGC official Terry Hydee about the environmental problems on Singley Hill, Dixon says "I felt encouraged. She promised me she'd get me a response I'm hopeful they will put a stop order on the casino."

Yet the NIGC has only one field representative for California, with no direct telephone -- only voice mail in Washington, D.C., a message to which was not returned. So review of sewage system designs, monitoring of water quality and other environmental impacts is likely to be spotty at best.

(At press time, the future of the Rohnerville Rancheria's Bear Paw Casino in Loleta was in doubt. The temporary structure originally planned has been deemed insufficient for North Coast winters, and tribal Chairman Wayne Moon said the project's financing is in question. Plans for a casino in Blue Lake are also on hold. "We've been trying for several years, but we've never been able to get the funding," says Arla Ramsey, tribal administrator.)


The Mooreheads seem eager to reassure those who are worried about the resort and frustrated that non-Indians don't understand what Indian sovereignty means.

"The California Indians were paid about six cents an acre to legally affirm the taking of the state from us," says Ted Moorehead, 67. The former longshoreman remembers spurning offers from L-P and others to sell his Big Lagoon lands over the years. "L-P lawyers came to me and told me they'd buy me another place away from the Lagoon (if I sold out.) I said 'Buy me the Eureka Inn and I'll do it.'"

So he feels no need to apologize today for being in a position where his community can purchase L-P land to create a project that will put his grandchildren through college. About potential sewage problems, the younger Moorehead offered some strong assurances. He says, and state officials confirm, that the rancheria is voluntarily obtaining environmental reviews from the state Water Quality Control Board. And when the development's sewage system is designed, the county environmental health department will be given an opportunity to look it over and comment.

"We have engineers designing everything The engineers have licenses. When they do something they're putting their licenses on the line. They're not going to do something that's going to jeopardize their licenses, and we're not going to do anything that jeopardizes our home or our reputation."

Indeed, the rancheria has hired a respected local firm, Oscar Larson & Associates, to design its waste water disposal and freshwater systems. "In our discussions with the rancheria, it's very clear that we're trying to meet or exceed the county's health requirements and the standards imposed by the regional board (for waste water disposal)," said Marty McClelland, Oscar Larson operations manager .


It's a profound twist of history that puts tribes like the Big Lagoon Rancheria in a position to use money from gambling investors to do something akin to what was done to them by European-Americans: acquire undeveloped land and use it for purposes that are repugnant to the long-term inhabitants or neighbors.

The Moorehead's Yurok and Tolowa ancestors were dispersed and made landless over the decades following white settlement in the mid-1800s. While family members lived in Big Lagoon since the 1930s, the tribe only obtained title to the nine-acre Big Lagoon Rancheria under the Homeless Indians Act in the late '60s, according to Moorehead.

When it acquired the 11-acre parcel next door, it applied to the BIA to have it brought into trust status, in which the U.S. government holds title to it on behalf of the tribe. After trust status was obtained, the casino development could proceed.

The rancheria plans to seek a transfer of its Hotel Arcata liquor license up to the casino. A spokesman for the Alcoholic Beverage Control Department says that liquor service would have to be separate from the casino. Other casinos in California with liquor licenses manage this with glass barriers or low walls.

Opponents of the casino development would have little standing in opposing the license transfer, since ABC rules require only that people living within 500 feet of the liquor sale site need to be notified. And the rancheria's closest neighbors are well outside that distance.

Stopping the BIA from taking additional lands into trust for the rancheria is probably the only legal avenue that neighbors, county officials and Big Lagoon users have to stop or slow down any development beyond the casino.

Redding BIA staff members say that they know of no cases in which a tribe's application to take land into trust was denied due to complaints or concerns about a casino's impact on the environment. IGRA puts some restrictions on tribes taking newly acquired land into trust for casinos, but these may not even apply in this case since gambling will probably be limited to the rancheria's existing trust lands.

What is known is that local opposition will be intense. "We're going to be working with the BIA to oppose any trust status for the nearby property," says Frost, who mentions he's already been hailed outside his cabin by a would-be gambler asking "where's that new casino?"

In that effort, Frost and some of his Big Lagoon neighbors may have allies in other parts of the state where potential tribal gambling developments have drawn opposition. In Placer County, the Auburn Rancheria is reportedly holding up on plans to acquire 60 acres of rural land off Highway 80 for gaming purposes because of local resistance.

"The Placer County Board of Supervisors has unanimously voted that anything that (the rancheria) does in the county should conform to local planning and licensing ordinances," says County Supervisor Kirk Uhler. "We're intent on seeing that our authority as a government agency to regulate land use will be respected, and we'll do whatever we have to do to make sure (of that)."

But Big Lagoon opponents probably won't gain many backers from San Diego County, where three huge casinos are thriving to the point where American Indian tribes and individuals have become significant donors to nonprofit groups. The Barona, Viejas and Sequan bands have set up their own regional health services that tightly monitor the casinos, other tribal facilities and even serve non-Indians.


Not interviewed for this story were any of the unemployed who might seek a job at Big Lagoon Casino, or people who'd like a fancier place to play their favorite games of chance, or tourists who have seen enough redwoods, or musicians who'd appreciate another nightclub venue.

There's no question that Big Lagoon Casino can provide jobs and pay checks that Humboldt County needs. The net impact on the regional economy will surely be positive, especially if it draws some visitors who wouldn't otherwise visit Humboldt County.

Losses will be harder to figure. Will a busy casino inflict a new level of noise on a lagoon already popular with jet-skiers? Will it spoil the view or pollute the lagoon? And how many new cases of "pathological gambling," as psychology researchers refer to it, will take root on the shores of Big Lagoon?

One loss that can be tallied already is the spoiling of whatever good spirits were left between the small band of Indians living on one side of the point and the non-Indians living and vacationing on the other. As one side takes hold of a long-awaited opportunity, secure in the justice of its position, the other is frustrated by a degree of powerlessness that its members have probably never felt in quite the same way.

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