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Cabazon seek to expand environmentally friendly businesses

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MECCA, Calif. - Business and economic development is often seen as the enemy of the environment. The southern California Cabazon tribe believes this is not always the case and has set out to prove it.

For the last 18 months the 42-member Cabazons have operated a tire "crumbing" facility on their checkerboard reservation at the edge of the Mojave Desert as part of a larger environmentally friendly business plan that is in no way complete.

The Cabazons are directly in the middle of an economic empowerment zone and regard their environmentally friendly industries as an example for other zones across the nation.

In addition to the tire facility, the tribe also operates a 50-megawatt power facility that uses so-called green waste, such as wood and tree trimmings as its primary fuel.

Now the tribe is in negotiations with several power manufacturers to create an even bigger, clean-burning facility to power their proposed expansion into environmentally friendly, light industries.

Cabazon Chief Executive Officer Mark Nichols says all of this is the result of careful, long-term planning begun in the 1970s.

"In 1976 the tribe began a reorganization effort whose goal was to have the tribe work more efficiently in the modern world. The trick was to find those kinds of economic expansions that would ultimately be consistent with traditional values, particularly a clean environment," Nichols says.

The Cabazons came up with the first of several 10- and five-year plans that year to develop these goals. The current five-year plan expires in 2003. Since the Cabazon reservation was divided into four separate areas, the tribe decided each should take on a specialized facet of tribal needs.

Over several years the tribe decided the four task areas should be resort/ entertainment, commercial, residential and waste management.

The result has been a tribal entertainment facility opened on the stretch of land that is nearest Interstate 10 that includes Fantasy Springs Casino - given approval for expansion in October - and an adjacent bowling alley.

On the 640-acre resource recovery stretch, the tribe tried several things for economic development, including setting up a service that cleaned up poison soil at former gasoline stations.

The most important initial tribal facility was the Colmac power station. The idea for the facility was the result of a California state mandate governing the amount of biodegradable waste in dumps and landfills. Cabazon had been looking for something to help with this when they decided to open a power plant that used wood and other plant materials to fuel the turbines to create electricity.

Director of legal affairs for Cabazon, Patrick Schoonover says most of the power generated from this relatively low wattage facility ultimately goes to southern California energy providers. This is the reason the tribe is negotiating for a larger plant for its own industrial needs as well as an additional source of power for southern California which has been rocked by utility company deregulation.

"Because of (deregulation) the market has created a demand for additional power sources in southern California and we're hoping to be an additional provider," says Schoonover, who notes the new plant will not affect the existing Colmac plant.

Eighteen months ago the tribe opened a 30,000-square-foot state-of-the-art tire crumbing facility. It employs 32 people and shreds tires to be recycled into other uses. The facility employs the latest computer controls and is run by Dan Swanson, who has been in that line of work for 10 years.

Swanson says the plant has contracts with several southern California tire dealers and the recent Firestone recall has also given the plant extra business.

"As far as I know, this is the only Native American-owned tire recycling facility in the country," says Swanson.

Swanson says the tribe is looking to further develop the resource recovery area by bringing in light industries that would be integrated into the tire crumbing facility and the proposed power plant.

Both Nichols and Schoonover think that it is feasible to bring in light industries that would utilize the recycled rubber, the by-product of the tire facility, and manufacture it into other uses, such as materials for roofing.

They also think it will be possible for the tribe to expand beyond tires and rubber products to expand the facility to include recovery of metals such as copper and aluminum, as well as extracting platinum from catalytic converters of junked cars.

Another project the tribe is looking at is aquaculture. Integrating their waste management goals, the tribe feels they could use an aquaculture facility to not only raise shrimp but to sell the by-products as fertilizer to farms.

In preparation for these projects the tribe has conducted a Programmatic Environmental Impact Study (PEIS) to clear the way for future development. The PEIS is something that is usually used by cities to clear the way for future development. This is the first time an Indian tribe has done this.