WASHINGTON — A Washington state tribe’s controversial bid to build a big casino comes to court today, in a case that’s being closely watched on and off reservations nationwide.
For the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, the casino proposed near La Center is a potential economic savior. For opponents, including officials in Clark County and the nearby city of Vancouver, the proposed 152-acre gambling facility and resort is a looming burden. And for the Obama administration, as well as other tribes, the Cowlitz proposal could prove a test case whose final resolution could reach far and wide.
“We’re monitoring it,” Richard Guest, senior staff attorney with the Native American Rights Fund, said in an interview Tuesday. “With Indian cases, unfortunately, the decisions have impacts that can go beyond that particular tribe.”
The case rescheduled for a status hearing this morning before a U.S. District Court judge in Washington, D.C., challenges the Interior Department’s 2011 decision to accept land near La Center for the proposed Cowlitz casino. Similar to two pending Indian casino proposals in California’s Central Valley, among others, the Interior Department would take the off-reservation land into trust for the tribe.
And, similar to the California projects proposed in Madera and Yuba counties, the proposed Cowlitz casino has generated opposition from some – though not all – local authorities, as well as from existing gambling operations. Lawsuits dog all three projects. Underscoring the high stakes, the United South and Eastern Tribes, an organization representing 26 tribes from Texas to Florida, filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the Cowlitz position.
From the other side, opponents raise alarms in legal filings about increased “crime, noise and light pollution,” lowered property values and damaged waterways, among other problems.
The Cowlitz lawsuit already is 2 years old, and it won’t end at this week’s hearing. In time, Guest suggested, it even has the potential to reach the Supreme Court. The casino proposal itself, now entering its second decade, envisions 3,000 slot machines, 155 gaming and poker tables, a 250-room hotel and more.
“If the (opponents) prevail, the tribe will remain landless, without any federally protected land base, without the ability to qualify for many reservation-based federal programs, and without any prospects for economic development and a stable revenue stream that other federally recognized tribes have,” attorney Robert Luskin wrote in a brief for the tribe.
But the Cowlitz casino case’s impacts might not be limited to the Northwest. The case also is obliging a federal judge to weigh Obama administration actions against a 1934 law and a 2009 Supreme Court decision.
The 1934 law, called the Indian Reorganization Act, authorized the Interior Department to take land into trust for “any recognized tribe now under federal jurisdiction.”