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Cowlitz Casino Battle May End Up In U.S. Supreme Court


The 152 acres near La Center, Washington was once a dairy farm, before it was purchased for the Cowlitz Indian Tribe by a developer more than a decade ago.

The 152 acres near La Center, Washington was once a dairy farm, before it was purchased for the Cowlitz Indian Tribe by a developer more than a decade ago.

Conrad Wilson/OPB

Less than 20 miles from Portland, off Interstate 5, there’s a grassy field surrounded by trees.

This 150 acres plot was once a dairy farm, before it was purchased for the Cowlitz Indian Tribe by a developer more than a decade ago.

From here you can easily see and hear the steady high-pitched hum of cars and trucks.

“It’s not predominant, but you can hear the freeway,” said Bill Iyall, the Cowlitz tribal chairman, standing along a road that divides the property in half.

Cowlitz Indian Tribal Chairman Bill Iyall standing on the 152 acres near La Center, Washington where he hopes to build tribal offices and a casino.

Cowlitz Indian Tribal Chairman Bill Iyall standing on the 152 acres near La Center, Washington where he hopes to build tribal offices and a casino.

Conrad Wilson/OPB

“We go down to the tree line, which is an unnamed stream at the base of the field in the back.”

Iyall hopes the property will soon become the new home of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, complete with tribal offices and a casino.

For more than a decade the Cowlitz Indian Tribe has tried to build a casino near La Center, in southwest Washington. But that effort has been slowed by a slew of lawsuits from local governments, gambling interests and even other tribes.

Last week, a federal judge ruled in favor of the Cowlitz.

While that cleared the way for construction of the casino to begin, the tribe’s victory could be short lived.

The tribe has approval to build two gaming facilities, but Iyall said they plan to build only one.

“It will be a very good attraction for the whole community here drawing thousands of people daily, but also providing thousands of jobs,” he said.

The federal government officially recognized the tribe in 2002.

Not long after, the Cowlitz applied to have the land put in trust.

Last week’s ruling by a U.S. District Court judge cleared the way for the Cowlitz to finally get the land and begin building. But opponents of the plan say they’re going to appeal.

Card rooms in La Center, Washington oppose the casino that the Cowlitz Indian Tribe hopes to build off Interstate 5. They say it could put them out of business.

Card rooms in La Center, Washington oppose the casino that the Cowlitz Indian Tribe hopes to build off Interstate 5. They say it could put them out of business.

Conrad Wilson/OPB

John Bockmier represents several card rooms in the city of La Center. Under state law, he said, card rooms in Washington state can’t have slot machines.

“They’re just in a different regulatory environment and they wouldn’t be able to compete and it would be the end of their business,” he said.

The city of La Center gets about 10 percent of the gross revenue from the card rooms, Bockmier said.

In addition to the non-tribal gaming, the city of Vancouver, Washington and Clark County both oppose the Cowlitz proposed casino plans.

The attorney for the city argues there will be increased traffic that the region is not prepared to handle, as well as an increased demand for housing.

Among the most vocal critics of the proposed casino: The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde.

Justin Martin, who heads up governmental affairs for the Grande Ronde, argues the location of the Cowlitz’s proposed casino would be closer to the city of Portland than their Spirit Mountain Casino in Oregon.

“Portland is a big market area for the Confederated Tribe of Grand Ronde. We’re about 68 miles southwest,” Martin said. “If another casino goes in within 15 miles of Portland there will certainly be an economic impact.”

The Grande Ronde is planning to file an appeal soon, said Rob Greene, the attorney for the Grand Ronde.

“We have an issue that they’re attempting to build a casino in lands which are more historically associated with the antecedent tribes and bands of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde,” Greene said. “Were they North along the Cowlitz River we would not have brought this case.”

Greene said the Grand Ronde’s appeal will center on the fact that the Department of Interior doesn’t have the legal authority to take the land into trust and turn it over to the Cowlitz tribe.

The legal arguments may hinge on a law that dates back to 1934 as well as a U.S. Supreme Court ruling from 2009.

Bob Anderson, director of the Native American Law Center at the University of Washington, said in 2009, the Supreme Court ruled tribes who wanted land had be under federal jurisdiction in 1934. But, he said, the Court didn’t define what that meant.

“Tribes that are recognized can get land taken in trust for them so they can have a home, have property that’s under their jurisdiction over which they exercise their sovereignty,” he said.

The Cowlitz case could end up at the U.S. Supreme Court, Anderson said.

Back near La Center, tribal chairman Iyall said he disagrees with the Grand Ronde and others who say his tribe should be elsewhere.

“We’re here in our homeland,” he said. “This is where we belong.”

Legal experts on both sides of the debate said an appeals process could take about a year.