WASHINGTON After buying a chunk of land 50 miles north of San Francisco, the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria just broke ground on a new, Las Vegas-style casino. It will be the largest in the Bay Area, with 3,000 slot machines, 200 hotel rooms, a spa, bars, restaurants and parking for more than 5,000 cars.
In New York, the Shinnecock Indian Nation is considering Long Island as a site on which to build the Big Apple's first tribal casino.
And in Washington state, the Spokane Tribe of Indians wants a new 13-story casino and hotel next to Fairchild Air Force Base, prompting fears that the city will become "Spo-Vegas."
The plans are extraordinary for one reason: In all three cases, the tribes want to build their palaces on land that's not part of their original reservations.
The expansions are the latest twist in the nation's Indian casino wars, and they mark a major shift for the tribes, which already run 385 casinos and bingo halls in 29 states.
Since the U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for large-scale Indian gambling 25 years ago, tribes have been forced to keep the majority of their casinos on reservation land held in trust by the federal government, usually in remote regions far from public view.
Now, thanks in part to the Obama administration, Indian tribes across the country are ready to bust out, bringing gambling to the same land that was taken from them long ago.
Tribes are seeking to cash in on a loosening of the rules, announced in June 2011 when the Bureau of Indian Affairs junked a Bush-era requirement that a casino had to be within easy driving distance from a tribe's reservation.
Casino opponents now fear that tribes, with their sovereign status, will have far too much authority to do as they please on their new lands, especially as they press for even less federal control.
In the small desert town of Joshua Tree in Southern California, Victoria Fuller said she worries what might happen if the Twenty-Nine Palms Band of Mission Indians is allowed to open a new, off-reservation casino near the entrance to Joshua Tree National Park.
"They could do anything they want," said Fuller, the president of the Joshua Tree Community Association and a leading opponent of the plan. "They could put a 20-story building with spotlights on it, and we would have no say."
The new push by the tribes is aimed at reviving a $28 billion-a-year industry hit hard by the recession. After growing at a brisk 14 percent annual rate from 1995 to 2007, gambling revenues have essentially stalled out, increasing by only 1 percent a year.
The tribes' moves have ignited a debate over how quickly the United States will hit a saturation point with casinos. While polls show broad public support for gambling, some say the tribes are ready to push the envelope.
"It's just all about the money, and the model is very simple: It's to get as many slot machines as possible as close to maximum-population areas " said John Kindt, a gambling researcher and professor of business and legal policy at the University of Illinois. "They're going to go everywhere."
The epicenter of the battle is in California, one of six states along with Washington, Florida, Oklahoma, Arizona and Connecticut that account for more than two-thirds of all Indian gambling revenue.
The Golden State already has more than 60 Indian casinos, the most in the nation. And when U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein introduced a bill last year that would make it harder for tribes to buy new land for gambling, she said the state could easily have another 50 casinos in coming years if Congress doesn't stop them.
Feinstein warned that another 67 tribes in California were already seeking federal recognition, the first step toward getting a casino. And she said "the problem is only going to get worse," with some tribes vying to open new casinos more than 100 miles from their tribal headquarters.
Casino opponents who are tracking the tribes' activities said that at least 137 applications from California are pending with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which must sign off on the land transfers before casinos can be built.
Cheryl Schmit of Penryn, founder and director of Stand Up For California, a statewide organization that has been leading the fight against more casinos, called the rule change a mistake and said that, if allowed to stand, it could result in casinos opening "on every offramp."
"Some of these are just land grabs by wealthy tribes," Schmit said, lamenting that the tribes are making their push to expand with little attention from either the press or the public. "It's huge, but everybody's kind of been numbed by all the gambling."
Since 1990, the Indian gambling industry has made political contributions of nearly $58 million, with 70 percent of the money going to Democrats, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. And the tribes also have been spending heavily on lobbying, more than $20 million in 2011 alone.
Schmit and other opponents say the relaxed rules on off-reservation casinos are merely a payoff to the tribes, which have made the president their top recipient of campaign cash in the last two years.
In Congress, both Feinstein and Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona are pushing bills to clamp down on off-reservation casinos.
When she introduced the Tribal Gaming Eligibility Act last year, Feinstein said she wanted to end the practice of "unbridled reservation shopping." Without congressional action, she warned, "Californians have no power to stop these tribes from opening unwanted casinos in their backyards."
The Democratic senator personally intervened in one of the hottest fights in California, lobbying Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to kill the plan to open a casino in Joshua Tree.
Fuller cheered Feinstein's entry into the fray and said there is no shortage of gambling opportunities in Joshua Tree, with seven casinos already operating within an hour of the town. She said the tribes have created "a real ticking time bomb for communities and states."
"I don't think anybody ever envisioned that they would be able to go out and buy land and have casinos everywhere," she said.