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Opponents Mount Carcieri Challenge to Cowlitz Casino

WASHINGTON – A coalition of forces has launched a Cariceri challenge in a lawsuit seeking to block the federal government’s decision to take 152 acres of land into trust for the Cowlitz Indian Tribe to build a casino resort near Le Center, Washington.

The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia Jan. 31, just over a month after the Interior Department’s Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs Larry Echo Hawk announced that the trust lands will serve as Cowlitz’ initial reservation and that the tribe intends to conduct Class III gaming there under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA).

Clark County is the lead plaintiff in the law suit. It is joined by the City of Vancouver, Wash., an anti-Cowlitz casino group called Citizens Against Casino Shopping, and two individuals who live near the Cowlitz’s proposed casino site, who claim the environment, their quality of life and property values would be negatively impacted by a nearby casino, and two non Indian gaming companies. Dragonslayer, Inc., and Michels Development LLC together own four La Center card rooms that stand to lose substantial business to a full scale casino resort.

The lawsuit is the second Carcieri challenge to be filed in the last month. In early February an individual was granted standing to go forward in an action against the Gun Lake Tribe, raising both the Carcieri argument and claims that his quality of life would be impacted by the casino.

The Interior Department and Secretary Ken Salazar, the BIA and Echohawk, and the National Indian Gaming Commission and its Chairwoman Tracie Stevens are named as defendants.

The lawsuit argues that the Interior Department secretary doesn’t have the authority to approve the Cowlitz Tribe’s land into trust application because of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2009 Carcieri ruling, which says the Interior secretary has no authority to take land into trust for tribes that were not “now under federal jurisdiction” when the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) was passed in 1934. The decision reversed more than 70 years of practice and virtually froze trust applications for the past two years.

The ruling is named after former Rhode Island Gov. Donald Carcieri, who filed the original case challenging Interior’s authority to take 31 acres of land into trust for the Narragansett Indian Tribe for low income housing for the tribe’s elders. Carcieri and the state feared that the Narragansetts would do a last minute switch and build a casino on the land, even though that was impossible because of HUD funding restrictions on the property.

The lawsuit also presents four other claims alleging Interior Department violations of the IRA, the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and the Administrative Procedures Act.

“The lawsuit argues that the Bureau of Indian Affairs exceeded its authority in approving the Cowlitz proposal, which would remove the interchange property from county jurisdiction, including land-use planning. In addition, the county contends that the BIA violated federal laws and regulations and was deficient in considering impacts to the county and state,” a statement on the Clark County web site said.

Cowlitz, a landless nation of around 3,700 citizens located in Longview, Wash., was federally acknowledged in 2000 and filed the land into trust application in 2002 to establish a reservation with the goal of putting a $510 million casino-hotel complex on it.

The Cowlitz Tribe’s application to place land into trust was filed under the Indian Reorganization Act, which required the Interior Department to examine whether it could be approved under the Carcieri Supreme Court decision. The Interior Solicitor’s office conducted a thorough review of the application and determined that it satisfied the requirements of the Indian Reorganization Act and the Carcieri decision, according to a news release issued by the BIA.

“We worked very closely with our attorneys in the Office of the Solicitor on the Cowlitz Tribe’s land-into-trust application and determined that it clearly satisfied the law,” Echo Hawk said.

The Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority of Connecticut, the Cowlitz’s financial backers and advisors who have already invested $40 million in the casino resort project, said in a recent earnings call that they expect the legal challenges would take a year or more to clear, Oregon Live reported.

The Mohegan Gaming Authority has an agreement with the Cowlitz Tribe to oversee construction and operate the casino for seven years. The Mohegan Tribe owns and operates the Mohegan Sun in Connecticut and other gaming facilities in Pennsylvania.