The yearslong legal battle over the Cowlitz Indian Tribe’s right to a reservation near La Center is over.
The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear an appeal from opponents who challenged the tribe’s claim on the land, essentially arguing that a federal mandate was wrongly used to give the tribe a 152-acre plot in 2010.
The decision clears the tribe’s road ahead as it opens the $510 million Ilani Casino Resort on the land at the end of April. Today, the tribe will officially open the new Interstate 5 interchange at Exit 16 that it spent $32 million renovating to handle a deluge of casinogoers.
Cowlitz Chairman Bill Iyall wrote in a Facebook post Monday that they were “delighted” by the decision.
“This is a triumphant moment for The Cowlitz Indian Tribe because it marks the end of a 160-year journey back to our homeland,” Iyall wrote. “The Cowlitz, the Forever People, are forever home.”
The denial was revealed on page seven of an unsigned, nine-page order that the Supreme Court issues on Mondays. On its website, the court said the “vast majority of cases filed in the Supreme Court are disposed of summarily by unsigned orders.”
A representative for the La Center cardrooms, a prominent opponent to the casino and party to the case, said they were “disappointed” with the dismissal.
“We still believe in the principles of our fight, and obviously we’re disappointed,” the representative John Bockmier said. “We are going to do our best to ensure the remaining two cardrooms in La Center continue to be the number one choice for folks looking for gaming entertainment.”
Legal battle over the years
Although the Cowlitz tribe is named a relevant party, the lawsuit was filed against the U.S. Department of Interior.
Casino opponents, led by the Citizens Against Reservation Shopping, contended the agency wrongly interpreted the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. They argued the federal mandate, which enabled the department to take lands into trust for tribes, only included those tribes that were federally recognized in 1934.
The Cowlitz tribe was federally recognized in 2000. The Bureau of Indian Affairs, an agency under the U.S. Department of Interior’s umbrella, approved its application to acquire the land in 2010.
In addition to the Citizens Against Reservation Shopping — a group that once included Columbian Publisher Scott Campbell — opponents included three private landowners, the owners and operators of La Center cardrooms, the city of Vancouver, Clark County, and the Confederated Tribes of the Grande Ronde.
Opponents said they believed the casino would create or increase problems with gambling and traffic while impacting schools and affordable housing. The groups also claimed the Cowlitz tribe did not have significant historical connections to the plot of land it sought.
In 2014, the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., dismissed the lawsuit. In a 57-page decision, Judge Barbara J. Rothstein rejected the plaintiff’s case and said the Secretary of the Interior had authority to take the land into trust for a reservation.
Opponents appealed that decision, but the U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal last July.
The city of Vancouver, Clark County and the Confederated Tribes of the Grande Ronde dropped out of the suit in 2016.
Open for business
With the case dismissed, the Cowlitz Indian Tribe is unhindered as it looks to open its 368,000-square-foot Ilani Casino Resort.
Jointly developed by the Cowlitz tribe and the Mohegan Tribe of Connecticut, the casino is projected to attract millions of visitors annually. It is 16 miles north of Portland, just west of Exit 16 on Interstate 5.
An opening date has not been announced, but officials have said they hope to open this month. The casino last week unveiled a bevy of restaurants and shops that will encircle its 100,000-square-foot gaming space, with 80 gaming tables and 2,500 slot machines.
The promise of an economic splash has allured some local businesses and frustrated others. Two of the four cardrooms in La Center have closed since the lawsuit began, including the New Phoenix Casino’s closure two weeks ago.
In the wake of the lawsuit’s dismissal, Bockmier said the closure of New Phoenix was challenging but they were grateful for support they had received.
“We are grateful to the folks in the community — very grateful — for their support through the years on this issue,” he said.