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BIA recommends Cowlitz land put into trust

Decision comes two weeks before longtime tribal leader's death

COWLITZ, Wash. - The Cowlitz Tribe has passed an important hurdle in its quest to open a $510 million resort casino in partnership with the Mohegan Tribe.

The BIA's final environmental impact statement, issued May 30, recommends that the Interior Department secretary take eight parcels of land totaling approximately 152 acres into trust for the tribe's proposed development. Interior would designate the land an initial reservation for the tribe.

The news came just two weeks prior to the sudden death of longtime Chairman John Barnett, who died June 15 at his home in Grays Harbor.

Barnett, 73, led the 3,600-member Cowlitz Tribe since 1982 through a contentious 25-year process to win federal recognition. A large man who started working in the timber industry as a logger and ended up owning his own wood products business, Barnett described himself in congressional testimony in 2001 as ''a son of a Finn lady and a Cowlitz Indian. I am sometimes referred to by my colleagues as the big Finndian.''

He also helped steer the tribe in applying for its initial reservation near La Center in Clark County, around 25 miles north of Portland, Ore. - which the tribe hopes will be on land purchased by his son, David Barnett, in partnership with the Mohegan Tribe of Connecticut.

''We are still mourning the loss of a great man and a great leader,'' Cowlitz spokesman Phil Harju told The Columbian, a Clark County news source. ''It's a very difficult time for the family and the tribe.''

The Cowlitz is the only landless federally acknowledged tribe in Washington state.

''The purpose and need for taking the property into federal trust, issuing a reservation proclamation, and approving the gaming development and management contract is to advance the BIA's 'self-determination' policy of promoting the tribe's self-governance capacity. The proposed action will facility the establishment of land base for the tribe that will be developed to improve the long-term economic vitality and self-governance of the tribe and its members through the creation of a stable, sustainable source of employment and revenue,'' the BIA said in the FEIS.

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The BIA considered five alternatives, including ''no action.'' The preferred alternative - Alternative A - includes a 1.18 million-square-foot gaming, entertainment and 250-room hotel complex with dining, retail and convention space. Gaming would include video lottery terminals, Class III slots and other activities. The plan includes parking facilities, a recreational vehicle park, wastewater treatment plant, tribal government offices, a cultural center and elder housing.

Under this alternative, a street would be rerouted through the southern half of the property, requiring the state to vacate the existing street and accept the new right-of-way location in Clark County.

Other alternatives include the same plan without rerouting the street, a plan for a smaller resort casino development and a plan for a non-gaming business park. Another alternative would locate the site of Alternative A about two miles away and require the property to be brought into trust through a statutory process that would require the tribe to apply for a reservation proclamation. The final choice considered is no action, in which case no land would be placed in trust for the tribe and the land would remain subject to local jurisdiction.

The casino proposal has been wildly controversial, particularly among La Center's card rooms, which represent four of the six top-grossing card rooms in the state, according to a report in The Columbian. La Center's card rooms had gross receipts of $34.8 million last year, the report said.

Last March, the city of Vancouver filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Tacoma over the tribe's casino plans. The lawsuit asks that the National Indian Gaming Commission set aside a tribal gaming ordinance that was approved in January.

Vancouver's court filing says tribal casinos must be operated on tribal land, but the 152-acre site is owned by Salishan-Mohegan. According to the Norwich Bulletin, the Mohegan Tribe and its gaming authority hold a 57 percent stake in Salishan-Mohegan, a company contracted in 2004 to help design, construct and then manage the casino. The agreement also gives the company 24 percent of the casino's net revenue.

The FEIS recognizes that the tribe's casino proposal sparked opposition by ''a significant number of residents.''

The BIA acknowledges that its preferred alternative would reduce revenues in competing gaming facilities - the La Center card rooms and the Spirit Mountain Casino - resulting in revenue reductions to La Center and the Grand Ronde Tribe, which owns Spirit Mountain Casino. It would increase traffic and exempt the land from local taxes and regulations. Further, it would also increase employment opportunities, but the effect on schools and housing is expected to be ''small.''

''While competitive effects are acknowledged, they are not expected to result in the inability of affected governments to provide basic services,'' the FEIS said.

Interior will issue a final decision on the BIA recommendation in 30 days, followed by a 30-day appeal period. Interior can accept the BIA's preferred alternative or choose one of the other options.