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California and the West

New Tribal Clout May Trump Dump

Legislature: The Pala Indians initially lost their bid to block a landfill they say would desecrate sacred land. Now, with a casino in the works, state lawmakers may side with the tribe.


SACRAMENTO — Back in 1994, no one in San Diego County paid much attention to the pleas of the Pala Indians that voters reject plans for a garbage dump at Gregory Canyon.

County voters approved it 68% to 32%.

Today, the Palas still don't want the dump; it would desecrate sacred sites, they say. But now, the dump's developers are on the run.

With powerful friends in the Legislature--state Senate President Pro Tem John Burton among them--the tribe won passage of a bill Wednesday in the upper house that would block the dump. The Assembly is expected to take up the bill today.

Backers of the landfill at the western foot of Gregory Mountain in north San Diego County say sacred sites are not the issue. Rather, they say, the 867-member tribe doesn't want the dump lest it despoil a $100-million casino the tribe is building nearby with backing from a Las Vegas company--a charge the tribe disputes.

"We fought it when we didn't have money, and we will fight it now that we do," said Pala tribal secretary Stan McGarr.

"Obviously, it is related to the casino," said Richard Chase, a San Diego County businessman who is overseeing the proposed Gregory Canyon landfill. "They don't really like a landfill on the road coming into their casino."

The bill at hand, AB 2752 by Assemblyman Dennis Cardoza (D-Merced), would grant power to the obscure Native American Heritage Commission to determine whether a proposed dump is within a mile of a site significant to Indians, and then block construction. It passed 21 to 3.

"Desecration is in the eyes of the beholder," said Cardoza, contending that a casino would not be heretical to the religious significance of Gregory Mountain. "My county dumps smell to high heaven. We have determined arbitrarily that a mile is the standard. So anywhere in the state, you can't open a dump next to [a sacred site], the same way you can't build a bar next to a school or church."

San Diego Democrats Sen. Steve Peace and Sen. Dede Alpert abstained on Wednesday's vote. But Cardoza's bill is opposed by several San Diego officials. Some contend that if the dump is not opened, north county residents will be compelled to continue to send their garbage to a landfill in Otay Mesa, near the Mexican border.

"Historically," San Diego City Councilman Juan Vargas said in a letter opposing the bill, "the south bay has been a dumping ground for major projects that the affluent north county doesn't want."

Adding to the irony, as the Palas battle to stop a dump, a tiny tribe in Colusa County in Northern California has pushed to open a dump on its reservation--against the wishes of local officials and farmers. Given that the tribal rancheria is sovereign land, the tribe has argued it can open the dump despite local opposition.

It all comes against a backdrop of the tribes' changing fortunes, and a newfound ability to assert long-held claims that their lands are sovereign.

"We are a sovereign people," McGarr said. "But one of the things we've learned is that if you really want to be sovereign, you better have some money. People didn't used to care about us. But all of a sudden, we've got something to back that sovereignty."

Although they operate a quarry on their reservation, the Palas long have been poor, with unemployment hovering at 40%. Unlike many tribes, the Palas held off opening a casino, deciding instead to negotiate a compact with Gov. Pete Wilson.

Their pact, pushed through the Legislature by Burton two years ago despite heavy lobbying by wealthy tribes that considered the pact too restrictive, led to the $88-million initiative campaign in 1998 in which tribes won passage of Proposition 5 to legalize their casinos.

The state Supreme Court struck down the initiative, prompting Gov. Gray Davis and tribes to agree to a new compact that was ratified by voters in March. Once Nevada-style gambling was deemed legal on reservations, the Palas were among the first tribes to announce a casino deal: a $100-million project, with financing from Anchor Gaming Corp. of Las Vegas.

That casino would be about two miles from the proposed Gregory Canyon Landfill. Gamblers and trash haulers would use the same road from Interstate 15.

Chase, a lawyer and former environmental commissioner in Connecticut, said the investors have poured $12.8 million into the dump project since taking it over in 1993. He acknowledged that the garbage industry and others backing the bill are significant campaign donors. The partnership has mounted a major lobbying effort to kill the bill.

Still, virtually every tribe in California is supporting the bill--and they have become the largest political donors in the state, spending more than $100 million on initiatives and candidates since the 1998 campaigns.

"If this were five years ago, it would be a different situation," Chase said. "What has changed the whole political calculus in Sacramento is Indian money."

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