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Michigan Case May Pose Obstacle to New Desert Casino

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Possible site of a new casino in Joshua Tree | Photo courtesy Google Street View

While all eyes were on the U.S. Supreme Court as it deliberated over the Affordable Care Act, the nation's highest court handed down an unrelated decision that may well have significant impact on one of the California Desert's most popular spots. At issue in the wake of the court's decision: a proposal by the 29 Palms Band of Mission Indians to build a casino in the unincorporated San Bernardino County hamlet of Joshua Tree.

On June 18 SCOTUS ruled on a case involving a Michigan land exchange by the Interior Department, in which Interior agreed to take possession of land bought by the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Potawatomi Indians, perhaps more commonly known as the Gun Lake Tribe. After receiving Federal recognition in 1993, the band bought some land in Southwestern Michigan and petitioned the Interior Department to put that land into trust for them. The band sought to open a casino on the property, and Interior's taking the land into trust meant that local and state governments would lose their jurisdiction over the proposal.

David Patchak, a nearby landowner, sued to rescind Interior's taking the land into trust, which wouldn't have prevented the casino outright, but it would have restored state and local government oversight. The Tribe and the Interior Department objected, saying that Patchak didn't have the proper standing to sue and that the federal government had sovereign immunity anyway. The case made it to the Supreme Court in April, and SCOTUS ruled 8-1 last month in favor of Patchak. The decision doesn't stop the casino, nor does it invalidate the land transfer, but it does mean Patchak's suit can proceed.

The Patchak decision is almost certainly going to affect the Joshua Tree casino proposal. The casino is proposed for land east of the town's central core which, similarly to the Potawatomi land in Michigan, was bought by the tribe in the hope that the Interior Department would grant the land fee-to-trust status. There is strong local opposition to the casino, and a suit similar to Patchak's is a strong possibility. Much of the opposition to the Joshua Tree casino centers around the lack of opportunity for local environmental assessment, and an opportunity to compel the tribal developers to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), among other local environmental laws, will likely prove enticing.

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Artist's conception of the abandoned 29 Palms Casino project | Image courtesy 29 Palms Band of Mission Indians

The Joshua Tree casino idea has its origins in a 2007 proposal by the 29 Palms Band to build a 60,000 square-foot casino down the road in 29 Palms, on the band's reservation lands. The Nüwü Casino 29 Palms would have sported a commercial campground and RV park, 350 slot machines, a bingo parlor, and a number of gaming tables on land adjacent to a wilderness area in Joshua tree National Park. Tourists heading to the park's eastern entrance and visitor center would have needed to drive past the casino.

The 29 Palms site proposal was abandoned in 2009 amid criticism on environmental and land use grounds. In mid-2011, the tribe floated the notion of moving the project west, onto land in Joshua Tree they'd purchased in the mid-2000s. At a Joshua Tree community meeting in October the tribe announced it had downsized the proposed casino to 20,000 square feet. Some residents applauded the proposal as a potential palliative to Joshua tree's unemployment rate. More spoke critically of the casino's likely effect on traffic, crime, demands on infrastructure and services, as well as environmental factors such as depletion of the local aquifer and night-time light pollution.

It's hard not to feel some sympathy for the 29 Palms Band. Their original casino proposal was shot down. Their existing casino in Coachella, the Spotlight 29, has been the subject of Justice Department probes, with the Tribe's lawyer indicted in May of this year for alleged bribery and money laundering. And now their Joshua Tree proposal has attracted as much opposition as its previous version, with statements against the plan coming from pols from local San Bernardino County supervisor Neil Derry to U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein.

And now SCOTUS has handed casino opponents yet another tool. Even if opponents can't sue the tribe into submission -- and taking a casino-operating tribe to court is a daunting prospect in the financial sense -- the possibility of a lawsuit does offer opponents a potent negotiating tool. It might help persuade the tribe to find another site (a former country club in nearby Yucca Valley has been mentioned as a possibility) or to submit the project to CEQA overview and commit to mitigation of the biggest impacts.

One other factor to watch: if the primary results are any indication, it's very likely that Joshua Tree will have a new county supervisor come November. James Ramos, who won a 15-point lead over Derry in the primary, is Chairman of the 200-member San Manuel Band of Mission Indians and as such oversees the large San Manuel Casino in Highland. If Ramos does win in November, it remains to be seen whether he will treat the the 29 Palms Band as potential business rivals, comrades-in-arms, or something in between. The next few months will likely be very interesting.

Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. Director of Desert Biodiversity, he writes from Palm Springs regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues on KCET weekly. Read his recent posts here.

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