Latest ruling clears way for Cowlitz casino, but expect more legal fights

The Cowlitz Indian Tribe has the green light to build a casino on Portland’s doorstep - again.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs issued a ruling on Wednesday that the tribe can form its reservation on 150 acres in Clark County near the town of La Center.

While the ruling is good news for casino supporters, don’t expect the legal battle to end just yet.  The decision is expected to be met with a new round of lawsuits by groups opposed to building a gambling facility closer than any other to the Portland/Vancouver metro area.

The new BIA decision follows a March 13 ruling by federal Judge Barbara Rothstein when she threw out a decision by the U.S. government to allow the Cowlitz tribe to make its reservation on the land near La Center. Rothstein ruled the government made a mistake when the Department of Interior didn't include evidence that questions whether Cowlitz Indians traditionally lived in that area.

Rothstein’s decision was a victory for those fighting the casino, although the legal war has been going on for 11 years.  Rothstein gave the federal government 60 days to fix problems with its original decision, and Wednesday’s announcement from the BIA comes just within that deadline.

KATU has talked with two people involved with the legal fight against the Cowlitz.  Both said it was too soon to comment but indicated a new round of lawsuits is likely.

Rothstein’s ruling in March did not mean the judge was saying the Cowlitz Indians never lived in Clark County. Rather, the judge said the government made a mistake by not including evidence about that in its decision-making process.  

An investigation by KATU in January questioned whether the tribe was trying to build its multi-million dollar mega-casino on land that was never its traditional territory.  The investigation revealed some tribal members are challenging their own leaders’ right to run the project.

Opponents also point to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling from a couple years ago that says any tribe that wasn't recognized before 1934 can't take land into trust for a reservation.

The Cowlitz weren't recognized until a decade ago.