By Chet Barfield UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER January 3, 2003 MANZANITA INDIAN RESERVATION – With bulldozers scraping the hillsides, the Manzanita Indian band is quietly pursuing an ambitious plan to turn this remote East County reservation into a magnet for gamblers, dirt bikers and off-road enthusiasts. The project is unlike any ever undertaken by a California tribe, both in its aims and in the way it has been launched with little or no public disclosure or governmental review. A Las Vegas man who describes himself as an investor and managing partner says Manzanita intends to open two small casinos as part of an outdoor recreation development that will surpass Glamis. The plan includes four motocross courses, a 1,000-acre off-road park, a 250-space RV park and a shotgun target range. The goal is to attract some of the thousands of thrill-seekers who pass by on Interstate 8 every weekend, heading out to the desert and sand dunes of Imperial County. "This is 10 times what Glamis wanted to be," said Thomas Angelo, the tribe's managing partner. "We're creating a destination, a destination with amenities, that just happens to have a casino." San Diego County has nothing like what's envisioned on this reservation 55 miles east of San Diego, Angelo said. Add gambling, RV camping and a 50-acre shooting range, and he contends that Manzanita could attract 14,000 to 20,000 people a month. That's quite a change for a 3,700-acre reservation that has little but rugged hills and open sky. Just north of the neighboring Campo reservation, Manzanita can see the night glow of the Golden Acorn Casino, but it lacks the freeway access Campo has. Angelo would not discuss the project's cost or name the investors who are funding it. He said he hopes to get at least part of it open by February. Tribal officials declined comment yesterday, but said they would be willing to discuss the project next week. Angelo said plans include two casinos, both tiny by California Indian standards. The main one, on the reservation's southern boundary two miles from the freeway, would have 280 slot machines, a restaurant and a lounge. It will be next to a more-than-50-acre RV park, Angelo said. A smaller casino with 69 slots and a restaurant is planned about a mile and a half farther north, in the middle of 200 acres of motorcycle racing grounds that have been under construction since early December. Four levels of motocross courses are being built, ranging from hillside runs with heart-stopping jumps for experts, to an easy peewee track for kids. Other aspects of the project include an off-road park with 1,000 acres of trails about a mile from the motocross area, and, in a different part of the reservation, a 50-acre firing range where shooters can blast clay targets that move as birds would fly. Future additions might include paved drag strips and race tracks, Angelo said. Limit on slots There's a reason Manzanita is limiting its casinos to 349 slots, Angelo said. Under California's Indian gaming compacts, that's the maximum number a tribe can have and still remain eligible for revenue-sharing funds from larger casino tribes. However, those same compacts include environmental and public-review provisions that Manzanita has not yet fulfilled. Before any casino construction begins, tribes are supposed to notify local officials, conduct and distribute environmental reports assessing off-reservation impacts, and hold public hearings. Although Angelo said the tribe has done its environmental reviews, no such reports have been made available. County and state officials were unaware of Manzanita's plans until a reporter made inquiries this week. "We'll be anxious to talk with them after we learn all this from your article," said Chantal Saipe, tribal liaison for the county government. "We will be most interested in talking with the tribal council or the chairman and reviewing the environmental documents." Likewise, the state Office of Planning and Research, which distributes the environmental impact reports required by the casino compacts, has received nothing from Manzanita. Tribal leaders declined yesterday to discuss what has or has not been done, other than to say they intend to comply with the compact they signed in 1999. Not specified State officials said the compact requirements apply only to a casino and any related structures such as a hotel. The document does not specify what other kinds of ancillary developments might be subject to outside review. A U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs official said that apart from casinos, many types of reservation projects would not require federal environmental reviews. The director of the tribe's internal environmental office, David Elliott, said he doesn't know what, if any, environmental studies may have been done on the Manzanita project. "My office has been kept out of the picture," he said. "As a tribal member, I'm opposed to it for the damage it's going to do. As an environmental person, I'm opposed to it because the proper studies haven't been done." Elliott said that in addition to off-reservation impacts, the tribe should have analyzed the potential effects on its own groundwater, air quality, soil erosion, noise and other factors. Saipe, the county liaison, said the county has similar concerns. "Hopefully, we will also be asked to review the environmental documents for the nongaming part of the development," she said.