The Cowlitz Tribe in Washington has struggled for over 150 years to reclaim parts of their homeland and practice self-determination. A little over a year ago the tribe, officially recognized in 2000, along with the U.S. Secretary of the Interior and Bureau of Indian Affairs finalized all the documents needed for the Cowlitz to call a 152 acre property in Clark County Washington a reservation, and their home. The last major hurdle to create the Cowlitz Casino Resort would seem to have been cleared.

The process was long and arduous, fraught with obstacles, and opposed outright and behind the scenes by powerful interests at every turn. In late 2015 they began initial site preparations on the new casino resort near La Center and broke ground on the $500 million project in January 2016, about a month after closing on a funding deal with the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority. The MTGA own and operate five gambling properties in the Northeastern U.S. including the Mohegan Sun, are advancing a second casino in Massachusetts with a former rival tribe who owns Foxwoods, and have partnered with a South Korean company to develop a $1.21 billion integrated casino resort dubbed Inspire Integrated Resort on Yeongjong Island there. The tribe is also invested in the online gambling venture of Resorts World Atlantic City and are allowed to own up to 10% of the brick and mortar operation there.

The tribe has fierce opposition to its plans being mounted by the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde, and a group calling itself Citizens Against Reservation Shopping; a so-called grass roots organization with ties to the editorial board of nearby Vancouver’s newspaper, The Columbian, among others.

The tribe now contends that county officials are looking out for the economic interests of card rooms in La Center, rather than advancing an agenda driven by the best interests of the community. As seen in an article in the Columbian, Tribal Chairman Bill Iyall recently accused Clark County officials of having “ratcheted up their bullying tactics,” in his response to a threat issued by Deputy Prosecutor Chris Horne, who said the county didn’t want to be put in a position of arresting people.

The current county/tribal dispute revolves around storm water disposal for the casino resort; specifically who controls a county road on the Cowlitz Reservation that the disposal line is intended to run underneath, and whether the county has any legal jurisdiction over anything on the federally protected reservation.

Tribal Chairman Bill Iyall contends the county has no rights on the Cowlitz Reservation and that his tribal government is fully empowered to develop it under federal laws and rules and to manage any rights of way upon it.

Although admitting that there may be a dispute over whether the county actually owns the road or simply an easement, prosecutor Horne says there are two issues involved – the fact that the county agreed in 2008 that reservation construction is governed by federal law, and the county’s interest in a road they may own that goes across the reservation.

“Either way, we have a protectable interest in the street, and they require permission to do work in our road,” he said. “I have advised them that if they seek to damage the road, we will call the sheriff to protect the peace,” the official said.

Tribal Chairman Bill Iyall insists that, “The county’s harassment of our construction workers must cease,” Iyall said. “The tribe will use all legal means available to protect the tribe’s lawful exercise of its jurisdiction on the reservation.”

It’s highly unlikely that the Clark County Sheriff or his deputies would arrest anyone over a civil matter who has not committed a crime. There is also a question of whether the office has any legal standing to enforce laws on the sovereign reservation land as the tribe has no inter-local policing agreement with the force. Further muddying the issue is the fact that the County is party to a lawsuit seeking an injunction to stop work on the casino.

The county posted a stop work order on the reservation in March which was promptly torn up as work continued. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Washington, D.C. circuit has yet to issue an injunction to stop construction, and the underlying case is not expected to be heard until later this year.

The first phase of three at the Cowlitz Casino Resort is expected to open in the spring of 2017 with 100,000 square feet of gaming space in a 368,000 sq ft building. At full build-out the casino, offering 135 table games, 3,000 slots, and 20 poker tables will span over 134,400 square feet and be complemented by over a quarter million sq ft of shopping space, more than 145,000 sq ft of entertainment and convention space, an eight-story, 250-room hotel, and parking for 7,250 vehicles and 200 RV’s.

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