WARNER SPRINGS, Calif. - Leaders of the Los Coyotes Band of Cahuilla and Cupeno Indians are threatening to sue Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne for what they say is an ''unconscionable and illegal'' rejection of an application for land into trust in Barstow, where the tribe plans to build a casino in partnership with the city.
The Los Coyotes Band is one of 11 tribes whose land into trust applications were denied on Jan. 4 - a day after Interior distributed new guidelines to the BIA's regional directors on applications for taking off-reservation land into trust for gaming purposes.
The guidelines apply a new buzzword - ''commutability'' - for the distance between a reservation and a proposed gaming site, and as a new measuring rod for taking land into trust for gaming.
''Commutability'' does not appear in the regulations as a standard by which to deny or accept a trust land application.
The regulations say the Interior secretary must give ''greater scrutiny'' to the tribe's anticipated benefits, and ''greater weight'' to state and local governments' concerns as the distance between the reservation and casino site increase, but the regulations neither explain how or why to do so.
The new guidelines do not define the limits of ''commutability.'' A press release from Kempthorne's office said that 14 tribes that received letters on Jan. 4 had applications for trust land situated more than 100 miles from their reservations, suggesting perhaps that the secretary, who has the discretionary authority by statute to take land into trust, may define 100 miles as the limit of ''commutability.''
Los Coyotes leaders said they were ''shocked'' at the rejection of their trust application for 23 acres of land in Barstow, where the tribe hopes to attract customers from the nearby San Diego urban area. The tribe had been invited by the city to establish a casino, and a tribal-state compact is in place for the facility.
The tribe said in a prepared statement that changing the rules in the middle of the process is ''unconscionable and illegal.''
''Changing the rules at this late date is a cruel and arbitrary act by Secretary Kempthorne. We worked hand-in-hand with the City of Barstow, the State of California and the Department of the Interior to follow the procedure historically used to obtain land for off-reservation gaming. To invent new rules at this juncture and then apply them retroactively reeks of politics,'' Francine Kupsch, the newly elected Los Coyotes tribal spokesman, said in the statement.
The tribe is eyeing a legal response to the rejection, said Shane Chapperosa, the tribe's vice chair and economic development chair.
Other tribes, including the Big Lagoon Rancheria and the Chemehuevi, received virtually identical letters, Chapperosa said.
''All but one of these relied on this new 'commutability' rule, which suggests this unprecedented purge of applications is based on the secretary's personal political agenda of prohibiting off-reservation gaming. This was done with absolutely no regard for the welfare of the tribe, its members or the community of Barstow. We will be looking at all our legal options to respond to this unfair and arbitrary determination.''
The St. Regis Mohawk Tribe in New York state also plans to file an Administrative Procedures Appeal against Kempthorne for his ''arbitrary and capricious'' ruling.
In dismissing the Los Coyotes application, Interior asserted that the tribe should build a gaming facility on or near its reservation, which is located in the remote mountainous area of northern San Diego County and surrounded on three sides by national forests.
Electricity was brought to the edge of the reservation less than 10 years ago, and the reservation generally is unsuitable for significant economic development; further, less than 20 percent of the tribe's members live there anyway, making the claim that the proposed off-reservation gaming project could negatively impact ''reservation life'' even more unlikely, tribal leaders said in the statement.