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News / Northwest

Oregon casino battle works its way into appropriations process

By Aidan Quigley, CQ-Roll Call
Published: June 11, 2024, 1:32pm

WASHINGTON — A long-stalled southern Oregon casino project pitting competing Native American tribes against each other has caught the attention of congressional appropriators, as opponents push for language in the upcoming Interior-Environment spending bill that would bar the project from moving forward.

Oregon’s Coquille Indian Tribe has long sought to build the new casino, an effort opposed by other tribes and a bipartisan army of politicians, including Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek, a Democrat; all four senators from Oregon and California; and various members of the Oregon and northern California House delegations.

Representatives of the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians, based in Oregon, and the Karuk Tribe in northwest California asked House appropriators in hearings last month to include language in the fiscal 2025 bill that would prevent the Coquille casino, currently under review by the Interior Department, and others like it from being built.

The request is the latest move in a lengthy battle among the tribes. Coquille Chair Brenda Meade said that it is “shameful” that the Cow Creek and Karuk tribes asked the Appropriations Committee to intervene.

“Indian gaming was never created for some tribes; it was created for all tribes,” Meade said. “There is a process and a law that has been looked at over and over, and Congress has approved those processes and policies and laws.”

But the opposing tribes argue that the Coquille proposal would place a casino far from that tribe’s own lands, and that allowing the facility to open would hurt other tribes’ gaming operations that fund essential services.

Cow Creek CEO Michael Rondeau said in written testimony for the committee that members of five tribes would face “cuts in health care, housing, education, and employment assistance programs” if the Coquille project is allowed to move forward.

“Our people would suffer, and these reductions in tribal services would put a further drain on public services offered by the states and counties,” he said.

On or off reservation?

Coquille first submitted its application for the project, which would renovate a bowling alley into a gaming facility on a 2.4-acre piece of land in Medford, Ore., in November 2012.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs rejected the proposal in 2020 under then-President Donald Trump, a decision the Biden administration reversed in late 2021 when Interior’s Office of Indian Gaming determined that the previous denial had been issued before the environmental review process was completed. A decision is still pending.

Both tribes requesting congressional intervention have casinos on the I-5 corridor, the highway that runs through Medford. Cow Creek owns Seven Feathers Casino in Canyonville, Ore., to the north, and Karuk operates Rain Rock Casino in Yreka, Calif., to the south.

The Coquille tribe points to the 1989 law recognizing the tribe, which lists five counties — including Jackson County, where Medford is located — as part of the tribe’s “service area.” That means members residing in that area can benefit from federal services and benefits to tribes, even if they don’t live specifically within the 1,000 acres considered to be “trust” land, or the primary reservation.

The law specifically placed those 1,000 acres, comprising parts of Coos and Curry counties, in trust, which is necessary for building a casino. Coquille’s existing Mill Casino is within that territory, in North Bend, Ore., overlooking Coos Bay on the Pacific coast.

The law also granted the Interior secretary discretion to accept further acreage in the service area into trust, based on factors spelled out in various regulations over the years; the Trump administration’s rejection took into account the Medford site’s vast distance from the current reservation, local opposition and more.

Nonetheless, to the Coquille tribe, the law is clear: The new casino fits squarely within their territory.

“That restoration act was approved by Congress and was very specific about where the tribe could put land in a trust,” Meade said. “This is a restored lands matter and process.”

Project opponents, including Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif., argue the project shouldn’t be considered on reservation, as it is over 150 miles from the tribe’s primary land between Charleston, Ore., and Coos Bay.

On top of the primary land in the western, coastal part of Coos County, the tribe has 5,410 acres of forest it controls under a 1996 law in eastern Coos County, according to the tribe’s website. In 2015, 3,200 acres of land in Curry County in southwest Oregon were restored to the tribe.

But none of this land is in Jackson County, where the new casino would be located. LaMalfa, who represents a northern California district that abuts Jackson County, “continues to oppose reservation shopping,” spokeswoman Alexandra Lavy said in a statement.

“Coquille is attempting to leapfrog 150 miles from their ancestral land ownership over other tribes and their casinos to get closer to the population center,” Lavy said.

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The distinction matters, as Coquille is seeking the project under an exemption to the 1988 law that regulates tribal gaming, which allows tribes that are recognized after that law’s enactment to open casinos on their land under an expedited process.

Opponents are pushing for Interior to consider the proposal under a “two-part determination,” which gives tribes more flexibility on where they can open a casino but includes more engagement with other tribes and stakeholders.

In a December letter to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, Sen. Laphonza Butler, D-Calif., wrote that she appreciated Haaland’s commitment to upholding the government’s commitments to tribes in an equitable way.

“A decision to give an advantage to one restored Tribe at the expense of so many other tribes would stand in stark contrast to that commitment,” she wrote.

But that more cumbersome process likely guarantees the Medford casino would be shelved, due to opposition from Kotek and other top local officials who have long backed an informal “one tribe, one casino” policy.

Meade said it is “no surprise” that the region’s politicians would oppose the Coquille project, pointing to Cow Creek’s outsized political influence.

Both Cow Creek and Coquille are among the top donors to federal officials in the 2024 campaign cycle, according to data compiled by OpenSecrets.org.

But Cow Creek has vastly outspent their rival over the years: $3.1 million in campaign contributions since 1990 versus just $224,000 for Coquille. Since 1998, Cow Creek has spent nearly $7 million on lobbying expenses, against Coquille’s $1.2 million.

“I understand that they don’t want any competition, and they are going to spend the money to oppose anyone,” Meade said.

‘A careful balance’

The opposing tribes are asking appropriators to “appropriate no funds for any off-reservation trust applications for gaming where a Tribe has no ancestral or cultural ties to the land being considered for trust status, and where the Governor and the state they represent will be wholly cut out of the siting process,” Rondeau said in his testimony.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., supports the language that Cow Creek and Karuk have requested. Spokesman Hank Stern said that Wyden “strongly believes Oregon has done well to strike a careful balance around the principle that each federally recognized tribe should operate one major casino.”

“He supports this language because he wants to preserve that balance giving all tribes an equal opportunity at economic success,” Stern said.

But appropriators still might not go for the tribes’ request to get involved.

Senate Interior-Environment Appropriations Chair Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., is publicly opposed to the project. But Merkley spokesman Justin Krakoff said he is focused on writing a bill that “can be enacted into law and doesn’t include the addition of new controversial policy riders.”

The House’s Interior-Environment appropriations bill is scheduled to be released late this month, ahead of a scheduled June 28 subcommittee markup. House Interior-Environment Appropriations Chairman Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, did not respond to a request for comment on the tribes’ ask.

Meade said Interior should ignore the political pressure that opponents of the project are pushing and should make its decision based on one factor: the law.

“The Department of Interior will make a decision,” she said. “We expect them to make a decision based on the law, not on the political influence that is being packed around by some of our tribes.”

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