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Cowlitz endure long wait on La Center casino decision

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 spokesman.

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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