July 31, 2007 -- Temecula, CA
House OK's bill transferring federal land to Pechanga tribeBy Onell R. Soto
Temecula's Pechanga tribe would get more than 1.7 square miles of federal land, some of it in San Diego County, under a bill passed by the House of Representatives on Monday.
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Vista, had been pushing for the land transfer for several years without success. The bill now goes to the Senate. Its prospects are uncertain, although an Issa spokesman said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, has been working on the bill.
The bill, H.R. 2963, specifies that the land is to be used for "protection, preservation, and maintenance of. . . archaeological, cultural, and wildlife resources" and that only maintenance roads can be built on it.
Critics of the transfer say it's unclear whether that bars any possibility of casino development.
Pechanga officials were not immediately available Tuesday. The tribe owns one of the largest casinos in Southern California and is planning to expand it.
Its reservation encompasses 8.6 square miles in Riverside County adjacent to San Diego County.
The Bureau of Land Management owns the 1,191 acres slated for transfer, and was not planning to get rid of it before the tribe expressed its interest years ago.
The bill was needed because "it's already federal land," said James Fletcher, Southern California superintendent of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. "In order for it to be transferred, it takes legislation."
But one gambling watchdog is wary, especially because Pechanga was one of four tribes that recently got approval for a massive casino expansion, and its agreement with the state allows for a second casino.
"There are issues in the development of this land that have not been addressed, environmental concerns that need to be addressed," said Cheryl Schmit, of Stand Up for California.
The land includes 950 acres that are part of Riverside County's Habitat Conservation Plan, which biologists say is an important wildlife corridor. The land also includes a 20-acre parcel containing Indian graves.
Once the land is taken into trust, the tribe will control what happens there.