The Mono Indians of Madera County's North Fork Rancheria are rolling the dice in their efforts to build a Las Vegas-style casino on Highway 99 miles from their traditional home.
Other California tribes have built casinos on recently acquired land. North Fork, though, wants to become the first to build what is often called an off-reservation casino.
The tribe must follow a complicated, time-consuming and politically sensitive process that only three tribes nationwide have navigated successfully. The odds are steep.
The Interior Department is making it harder for tribes to build off-reservation gambling halls. Anti-gambling activists are warning about the dangers of casino expansion. Other tribes, leery of competition, contend the North Fork tribe would set a bad precedent by building a casino far from its traditional homeland.
"It's like saying the French are going to put a casino in Germany," said Alison Harvey, executive director of the California Tribal Business Alliance, which represents several casino-operating tribes in Northern and Southern California.
North Fork tribal officials retort that they have every right to put a casino on the land, which they say was once inhabited by ancestors.
"North Fork Rancheria is following the letter and spirit of the law," said Jacquie Davis-Van Huss, North Fork's tribal chairwoman. "We're not setting a precedent for off-reservation gaming."
The law, in fact, is pretty complicated.
In general, federal law prohibits commercial gambling on Indian lands acquired after the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act took effect. But there are exemptions.
For instance, several California tribes with no reservations have been able to buy land and develop casinos once they gained federal recognition. These include the Chukchansi tribe, which runs a casino in Coarsegold, and the United Auburn Indian Community, which runs a casino in rural Placer County.
The North Fork tribe is pursuing another exemption in the law that gives the state a greater say. This exemption allows tribes that have been recognized and already have their own reservation, sometimes called a rancheria, to build casinos elsewhere. In the past 20 years, only three tribes -- in Washington state, Michigan and Wisconsin -- have made it all the way through this process.
The state's governor must agree, and the Interior Department must determine that gambling would be "in the best interest" of the tribe and "not be detrimental" to neighboring communities.
The Legislature also must approve a compact negotiated by the governor that spells out how much revenue goes to the state, among other items.
"It's a daunting challenge," said attorney George Forman, a lawyer who represents several casino-operating tribes in California.
By going through the more rigorous process, North Fork tribal officials believe they will be in a better position to negotiate a compact with the state. The tribe says that if it wanted to, it could choose another route: by having the federal government restore recognition of the Highway 99 land as North Fork tribal territory.
Opponents say that is not a viable option because the tribe never truly inhabited that land.
"They may have wandered down there and bought a salmon, but they didn't occupy it and control it," Harvey said.
Rather, she said the land has more of a historical connection to the Picayune Rancheria of the Chukchansi Indians. The Chukchansi tribe opposes the North Fork casino, as does the Table Mountain Rancheria, which runs a casino in Friant.
The first step for North Fork is to get the Highway 99 land put in "trust," meaning it is held by the U.S. government for the benefit of the tribe.
The North Fork proposal is one of 15 similar applications now awaiting action by federal officials, Bureau of Indian Affairs spokeswoman Nedra Darling said. Six of the off-reservation proposals would establish casinos in California, in locations including Yuba, Imperial and San Bernardino counties.
A decision won't be made on the North Fork application until the end of the year at the earliest, said George Skibine, director of the Interior Department's Office of Indian Gaming.
A jammed public hearing at the Madera County Fairgrounds last month allowed local residents to review and comment on the long-awaited draft environmental impact study that is part of the application process.
"We look at the impact on local governments and on local tax rolls," Skibine noted. "We really look to see if the local jurisdictions support the proposal."
Three years ago the five-member Madera County Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 in favor of the casino. Supervisors reiterated that support at the recent hearing. The proposal also has cleared at least one other hurdle.
In February, the Interior Department rejected 22 pending tribal applications to have land taken into trust for gambling purposes. Officials attributed the rejections to a new policy that the proposed casinos be located within a "commutable" distance from the tribe's original reservation.
The Big Lagoon Rancheria in Northern California's Humboldt County, for instance, unsuccessfully sought to build a casino in the Southern California desert town of Barstow, about 660 miles from the reservation.
The North Fork Rancheria, by contrast, is only about 35 miles from the proposed Madera County casino site.
"The BIA is used to dealing with requests for land 20, 30 or 50 miles away from a tribe's reservation," Assistant Secretary of the Interior Carl Artman testified earlier this year.
Still, other challenges await in Sacramento.
State Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter, said "reservation shopping" does not follow the intent of Proposition 1A, the 2000 law that allows the governor to negotiate gaming compacts with California tribes.
"The promise was real simple and that is Indian gaming should only occur on Indian land," said Florez, a longtime opponent of the Madera County proposal. "We've got to keep that promise."
Florez, who leads a Senate committee that oversees gaming, recently introduced legislation limiting gaming to areas where the tribe has "historically maintained" its reservation.
Other skeptics worry about the potential for a dangerous precedent.
"Every gaming investor in Nevada would be coming to California trying to put a a casino on [Highway] 99 or [Interstate] 5," said Cheryl Schmit, co-founder of Stand Up for California, a Placer County-based gambling watchdog group.
Tribal officials say their 80-acre rancheria, tucked into the Sierra foothills, is an "environmentally sensitive" area unsuitable for a casino. The property is also controlled by individual Indians, rather than by the tribe as a whole, which complicates large-scale development decisions.
The North Fork tribe has been trying to secure the 305-acre Highway 99 site since 2004. The tribe has a deal with Las Vegas-based Station Casinos to run the $250 million casino, which would likely include 2,000 slot machines, 70 table games and a hotel.
Gov. Schwarzenegger's position is unclear.
In 2005, the governor said he would oppose casinos planned for "urbanized areas." The North Fork casino -- targeted for land just north of the Madera Municipal Airport -- passes that test.
What is less certain is if the casino meets Schwarzenegger's accompanying demand that it serve a "clear, independent public policy" separate from the economic boost to the state, local community or tribe.
"We've had discussions with the governor," North Fork's Van Huss said. "We feel that the governor will support the project."