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Government may tighten Oregon's casino rules

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FLORENCE, Ore. (AP) - Oregon Indian tribes are awaiting new federal rules that could hobble attempts to place land into a trust and take it off the tax rolls, possibly affecting casino plans.

James Cason, associate deputy secretary of the Interior Department, recently wrote to Ron Suppah, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation, and to other tribes, warning that new planned rules could affect Suppah's application for a casino in Cascade Locks and all ''fee-to-trust'' applications pending nationwide.

Placing land into tax-exempt trusts helps tribes operate casinos since it exempts the land from rules against gaming.

Florence's Three Rivers Casino was built only after a 10-year legal battle by the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians to put 100 acres in trust, which opened it to gaming.

Some tribes apply for trust status with no casino plans because it removes tax burdens.

Some nontribal citizens call it unfair because tribes already get significant federal help.

Off-trust lands also can lead to ''off-reservation'' casinos, whereby a tribe buys property away from its ancestral homelands or a reservation and then applies to have it placed in trust to build a casino.

Warm Springs, which operates a small casino resort in central Oregon, wants one in Cascade Locks on property the tribe bought but to which it has no ancestral ties.

The idea is opposed by conservationists, anti-casino forces in the scenic gorge and other tribes who feel such ''reservation shopping'' would hurt their own casinos.

The Grand Ronde tribe's Spirit Mountain Casino is the closest to the lucrative Portland market. That would change with a casino in the gorge.

For two years, Warm Springs' application has languished, despite Gov. Ted Kulongoski's approval. Cason's letter doesn't bode well for it and worries other tribes that plan to buy more property.

''We anticipate changes to the rules that may result in fewer off-reservation properties being accepted into trust,'' Cason wrote.

It also bothers the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Indians near Roseburg.

Over the past decade, the Cow Creek Tribe has moved thousands of acres off the tax rolls and into trust, using profits from the successful Seven Feathers Casino to expand into other ventures.

The projects are much-needed economic development.

Cason's letter suggests new rules would make it harder for a tribe to move land into a trust the farther the land is from the established reservation or ancestral homelands.

Cason advised Suppah to rethink his tribe's proposal.

Tribal attorney Howard Arnett said similar letters went to 27 other tribes and said the Warm Springs application is unique because it involves an agreement with the state not to build on other property in the gorge.

Bob Garcia, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians, said he didn't think the Cason letter would have much impact on the Warm Springs application or the Coos Bay tribe's plans.

Garcia's tribe is building a 100-room hotel and quadrupling the existing casino's size.

The Warm Springs should be grandfathered in, Garcia said, and his own tribe's 100-acre tract has room for future projects.

Changes in Indian gaming rules are more likely to come out of Congress, Garcia predicted, where representatives have grown uneasy about the growth of casino gaming.