Cowlitz Tribe Wins Federal Appeal. Encouraging News for First Light Resort & Casino

By Brooks Johnson, Columbian Business Reporter

Published: July 29, 2016, 10:02 AM

A federal court on Friday affirmed the recognition of the Cowlitz Tribe, preserving its reservation near La Center and the $510 million casino resort being built there.

“The Cowlitz Indian Tribe scored another important victory today when the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia affirmed ‘in its entirety’ a court ruling that the Secretary of the Interior properly exercised her authority when she created the Cowlitz Indian Reservation,” Cowlitz tribal Chairman Bill Iyall said in a statement. “After 150 years of landlessness, the federal government and the federal courts have confirmed our right to this reservation.”

The case against the Cowlitz’s federal recognition and jurisdiction was initially launched by the city of Vancouver, Clark County, the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde, Citizens Against Reservation Shopping — a group that includes Columbian Publisher Scott Campbell — and owners and operators of La Center’s cardrooms. The groups sought to block the Cowlitz casino and resort by challenging the tribe’s status as well as its 152-acre reservation under the Indian Reorganization Act, the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.

On Friday, the appeals court upheld a 2014 ruling from the U.S. District Court dismissing their arguments.

“The Cowlitz are a ‘recognized Indian tribe now under federal jurisdiction,’ ” wrote Circuit Judge Robert L. Wilkins.

It was a landmark ruling for what is shaping up to be a Clark County landmark — the Ilani Casino Resort — though there is still the possibility of further appeals.

“Obviously I’m disappointed,” said John Brockmier, who represents La Center cardrooms in the case. “I’m going to sit down with my clients, who will have to decide where we go from here, if we go from here.”

The Grand Ronde, which operates the Spirit Mountain Casino 65 miles outside of Portland, released a statement on its website Friday morning saying the tribe’s leaders are “reviewing the decision and are evaluating our next steps.” The tribe did not hesitate to file an appeal immediately after the original 2014 ruling.

“The tribe continues to believe it is wrong for the Cowlitz to build a casino in Clark County, a region historically belonging to the Tribes and Bands of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde,” reads the statement from Chairman Reyn Leno. “The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde doesn’t believe that a tribe should be allowed to go reservation shopping outside their historic territory, simply because they have identified a location that is more desirable because of its proximity to an urban area.”

The Cowlitz Tribe, headquartered in Longview, gained federal recognition in 2000 and were granted their reservation, at Exit 16 along Interstate 5, just last year.

Despite the uncertainty imposed by the lingering court case, the Cowlitz started building the casino earlier this year. Ilani will have 100,000 square feet of gaming space, 2,500 slot machines, 80 gaming tables and several restaurants and meeting spaces.

“We are moving forward, improving the lives of our 4,000 tribal members, bringing jobs to the local economy and continuing to forge partnerships in the southwestern Washington community,” Iyall said in his statement.

Relations between the tribe and local governments have softened as the casino has moved from a bitter fight to a half-built reality. The city of Vancouver dropped out of the lawsuit earlier this year and ended its official opposition to the casino; La Center has been working closely with the Cowlitz despite the casino’s anticipated impacts on the city’s own cardroom revenue; and the county has resumed working with the tribe.

Clark County Manager Mark McCauley said that for now the county’s position in the lawsuit remains unchanged, though it will be up to councilors to meet and decide how to proceed with a possible appeal.

County Council Chair Marc Boldt, asked whether he thinks the county would remain part of the suit with the other opponents, said: “I think they’re on their own.”

Vancouver spent about $187,000 in the legal fight, while the county has spent close to nothing. The bulk of the legal fees has been shouldered by the Grand Ronde and La Center cardrooms, as well as the citizen group opposing the casino.

Dave Barnett, a Cowlitz tribal member and founder of the Ilani Casino Resort, said the tribe was confident it made its case during oral arguments this spring and plans to open its casino April 17.

“For us, it’s enough’s enough, let’s move forward and create a great project that’s going to make everyone in the region very happy.”

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