Feds take land into trust for Cowlitz Tribe

03.12.2015 Dean Rhodes Gaming, Federal Government

By Dean Rhodes

Smoke Signals editor

The federal government took land into trust for the Cowlitz Indian Tribe on Monday, March 9, fulfilling a promise made in October that it would do so on Jan. 21 or thereafter.

Bureau of Indian Affairs Regional Director Stanley Speaks signed the final documents to immediately establish the Cowlitz Tribe’s first-ever reservation.

The Cowlitz Indian Tribe had been trying unsuccessfully since 2002 to take approximately 152 acres into trust near La Center – about 15 miles north of the Portland/Vancouver metropolitan area – so that is can build a mega-casino complex on the property.

Meanwhile, the city of Vancouver, nearby property owners, Citizens Against Reservation Shopping and the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde filed appeals after U.S. District Court Judge Barbara Rothstein reaffirmed the federal government’s decision in December to take land into trust for the Cowlitz and dismissed lawsuits against the Department of the Interior.

Among other things, plaintiffs have argued that the Cowlitz Tribe’s traditional homelands are about 60 miles farther north in the Toledo, Wash., area.

“The Department of the Interior’s action ignores the fact that the case now pending before the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia is about whether the department even has the authority to take this land into trust,” said Tribal Council Chairman Reyn Leno. “It is premature for the Department of the Interior to take this land into trust before the Court of Appeals renders its decision.

“We think the District Court missed many of the salient issues and facts. Our Tribe has remained vigilant throughout this process. We have always believed this case would be decided at the appellate level and we remain confident that our appeal will be successful.”

Vancouver Assistant City Attorney Brent Boger said on Monday that the Department of the Interior has taken the position that if the plaintiffs prevail in the appeal, the taking of the land into trust could be undone.

U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, whose district includes La Center, previously had questioned the Department of the Interior’s promise to take land into trust for the Cowlitz Tribe while the legality of the land transfer remains tied up in federal court.

“It is extremely concerning that the Bureau of Indian Affairs would make this unprecedented move – signing the land into trust for the Cowlitz Tribe while legal proceedings are ongoing – particularly on such a controversial issue,” Beutler said via e-mail on Tuesday, March 10. “This action could have negative consequences for the community should the court decide to reverse the decision and require that the land be taken back out of trust. I continue to press the Department of the Interior to respect the legal process and the rights of southwest Washington and regional stakeholders to challenge this move.”