Cowlitz Tribe denies claims by plaintiffs in lawsuit

Federal approval of reservation near La Center challenged

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

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The Cowlitz Indian Tribe, which earlier this year filed as an intervenor in Clark County’s lawsuit against the federal government over the decision to allow the tribe to establish a reservation near La Center, has filed its answer to the claims made by plaintiffs.

The response was filed last week in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.

The tribe’s response, filed by attorneys from the Washington, D.C. firm of Patton Boggs LLP, was similar to the response filed June 10 by Assistant U.S. Attorney General Ignacia S. Moreno.

Both were 19 pages long and offered a point-by-point denial of all allegations made by Clark County and other plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed Jan. 31, 2011.

U.S. District Judge Richard W. Roberts has set an initial scheduling conference for Feb. 10.

During the conference, attorneys will agree on a timeline for how the case will proceed.

Added significance

The challenge has taken on special significance after the Obama administration chose to make the Cowlitz land trust case a test case of a 2009 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In that ruling, known as Carcieri, the high court said the government can only put land into trust for tribes that were under federal jurisdiction in 1934.

In saying the Cowlitz could establish a reservation, Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Larry Echo Hawk addressed Carcieri at some length in his December 2010 decision.

“For purposes of our decision here, I need not reach the question of the precise meaning of ‘recognized Indian tribe,’ as used in the (Indian Reorganization Act), nor need I ascertain whether the Cowlitz Tribe was recognized by the federal government in the formal sense in 1934, in order to determine whether land may be acquired in trust for the Cowlitz Tribe,” Echo Hawk wrote in his ruling.

The Cowlitz were federally recognized in 2000; that ruling was challenged and reaffirmed in 2002.

“The Cowlitz Tribe’s federal acknowledgment in 2002, therefore, satisfies the IRA’s requirement that the tribe be ‘recognized,’” Echo Hawk wrote.

Joining Clark County in the challenge of Echo Hawk’s decision: the city of Vancouver; nearby property owners Al Alexanderson and Greg and Susan Gilbert; Dragonslayer Inc. and Michels Development, operators of the four La Center cardrooms; and Citizens Against Reservation Shopping, a group that includes Scott Campbell, publisher of The Columbian.

Other tribes watching case

The plaintiffs also argue, and the defendants and the tribe deny, that the current plans have inadequate mitigation for stormwater, traffic, light and noise issues.

The defendants are the U.S. Department of the Interior, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the National Indian Gaming Commission.

Earlier this year, Cowlitz Tribal Chairman William Iyall said the legal challenge was not a surprise and other landless tribes will be watching to see what happens.

The plans for the Cowlitz site, which would be west of the Interstate 5 interchange in La Center, call for a two-story casino with 3,000 slot machines, 135 gaming tables, 20 poker tables and a 250-room hotel, plus an RV park, 10 restaurants and retail shops.

But that $510-million complex was proposed before the economy tanked, and the Connecticut-based Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority, which partnered with Cowlitz tribal member and real estate developer David Barnett of Seattle to operate the casino, has been struggling.

Stephanie Rice: 360-735-4508 or stephanie.rice@columbian.com.