Cowlitz endure long wait on La Center casino decision
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February 18, 2010
LA CENTER, WA - The Cowlitz Indian Tribe hoped to break ground on a $510 million
casino complex at La Center this year, but that has become unlikely. Instead
they are caught in a waiting game.
Several years ago they applied to the U.S. Interior Department to place 152
acres at La Center under Cowlitz jurisdiction. Their application is near the end
of the process. According to Stanley Speaks, regional director of the U.S.
Bureau of Indian Affairs in Portland, a final environmental impact study
completed in May 2008 is being reviewed by officials in the Interior
Department's Office of Indian Gaming. Speaks said he has no schedule for when
the Interior Department will make a final decision.
"It's frustrating that it's taken us this long," said Phil Harju, Cowlitz tribe
Matthew L.M. Fletcher, director of the Indigenous Law and Policy Center at
Michigan State University, said when an application takes extra time to review,
it means government officials are being cautious due to potential for lawsuits.
"I would say three to four years minimum, but more likely it'll be longer than
that," Fletcher said.
Even if approved, the casino may be delayed in court for years as opponents try
to stop its construction. The groups that currently oppose the Cowlitz casino
are a Clark County group called Citizens Against Reservation Shopping (CARS),
the four existing cardrooms in La Center, and the Confederated Tribes of Grand
Ronde, which operate a casino about 70 miles southwest of Portland.
Another major obstacle may be financing. The main financial backer, the Mohegan
tribe of Connecticut, may be suffering from the recession. The tribe saw its
gambling profits fall 8 percent in 2009. Cowlitz spokesman Hariju does not see
the tight financial market as a problem.
"There's concern all over the country," Harju said. "By the time we're ready to
break ground, my guess is the financing will be available."
Another new major obstacle is last year's U.S. Supreme Court ruling known as the
Carcieri decision. The court blocked the U.S. Department of the Interior from
placing new lands under Indian jurisdiction for tribes that were granted federal
recognition after 1934. The Cowlitz were recognized in 2000. They are a landless
tribe and never owned a reservation.
Cowlitz officials argue the ruling should not apply to them since they fell
under federal jurisdiction in 1934. Regardless, Congress is trying to overturn
the Supreme court decision with legislation referred to as the "Carcieri fix".
Last month the Senate's Indian Affairs Committee passed the bill and the House
is working on a similar measure. Final passage is expected this summer.
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