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Wiyot Winnings 

On Monday, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a compact with the Wiyot Tribe that would enable the tribe to gather $3-5 million a year in gaming revenue from a tribal casino in Madera County, in the Sierra Foothills. The casino, to be developed and managed by Station Casinos of Nevada, would be built on land that would be taken into trust for the North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians. The governor signed a compact with the North Fork Rancheria as well on Monday, in a joint ceremony with the Wiyot.

At first glance it seems odd that, so quickly on the heels of the Big Lagoon Rancheria's failed long-distance gambling venture in Barstow, the governor would be happily signing yet another compact involving a Humboldt County tribe's hooking up with a tribe far, far away.

But tribal officials involved in the arrangement between the Wiyot Tribe of Table Bluff in Humboldt County and the North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians in Madera County say their deal is vastly different from the Barstow venture.

Big Lagoon, near Trinidad, and the Los Coyotes Band of Cahuilla and Cupeno Indians, from the San Diego area, wanted to build two casino-resorts side by side on land hundreds of miles from either reservation. The governor had signed their compacts, eager to stop Big Lagoon from building a casino on its lagoon. The deal fell through this January after the Department of the Interior refused to take the land into trust for Los Coyotes, saying the site was too far from the tribes' reservations.

The North Fork Rancheria, on the other hand, hopes to have land taken into trust that sits just 35 miles from its official reservation, but which the tribe says is squarely within the Mono Tribe's extensive ancestral territory. And North Fork would be the only one building a casino there. In the Wiyot's compact, the tribe waives its right to pursue gaming in any form. It won't help run the casino, nor work for it in any way or put any revenues into it. But it will share in a percentage of the North Fork's net winnings — a percentage that will increase as the winnings increase. The state also will get a share.

Similar to Big Lagoon's Barstow bid, however, was the fact that protecting a pristine environment was key to the governor's interest. Table Bluff is along the Pacific Flyway and overlooks Humboldt Bay Wildlife Refuge. The North Fork's reservation is near Yosemite. They both wanted casinos — the Wiyot had been vying for a compact for a casino on Table Bluff since 1999.

Maura Eastman, Wiyot tribal administrator, said the tribe filed for the compact then because then-Gov. Gray Davis had said he wouldn't consider new tribal compacts after 1999. But, she said, the tribe knew Table Bluff wasn't ideal for a casino. "First of all, because of the location, which is on the flyway. And, it's four miles off of the freeway, it's next to the wildlife refuge, the roads would need significant changes." Plus, she said, a casino would consume what little developable land was left of the 88 acres on the bluff. And three other casinos in the area had already been built or were in the works.

"But they also knew that building a casino is absolutely hands down the fastest way for an Indian tribe to have a really strongly successful economic development program," she said.

So, about four years ago, the governor's office suggested the two tribes work together. For the Wiyot, there seems nothing to lose in the deal. Elaine Fink, tribal chairperson of the North Fork Rancheria, said on Tuesday that the money the Wiyot will get from her tribe's casino winnings will be about the same amount the Wiyot would have made if it had built its own casino on Table Bluff.

But what's in it for North Fork? Did the governor say, either you let the Wiyot in on the deal, or no compact for you? Eastman said that without the Wiyot on board, the governor might not have signed the North Fork's compact. But Fink says no.

"It wasn't necessary [to have Wiyot on board]," she said. "But it was a good gesture, it was a good partnership, and it shows that Indian tribes can work together."

John Maier, legal counsel for the North Fork Rancheria, said the dual compacts satisfy the governor's 2005 proclamation about tribal casinos: that they benefit the tribe and not be detrimental to the local community. In the case of these two compacts, there'd be a casino in an unincorporated part of Madera County, where nearly everyone wants it, instead of two casinos on two environmentally sensitive areas, he said.

The city and county of Madera support the casino, as do all the chambers of commerce, the irrigation district and others, Fink said. Two nearby tribes oppose the casino — it could compete with theirs. Eastman says she hopes their fears will be eased.

"We hope and we believe that the outcome of another casino would be to stimulate some traffic back and forth between them and so that actually it would benefit everybody," she said.

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Heidi Walters

Heidi Walters worked as a staff writer at the North Coast Journal from 2005 to 2015.

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