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Judge's ruling favors Cowlitz tribe in casino case

VANCOUVER, Wash. (AP) - A federal judge has sided with the Cowlitz Indian tribe in its long fight to establish a reservation and build a casino along Interstate 5 in southwest Washington.

U.S. District Judge Barbara J. Rothstein in Washington, D.C., on Friday dismissed a lawsuit filed by plaintiffs who had challenged a federal government decision to put into trust for the tribe about 152 acres west of La Center in Clark County and to allow gambling on that land, the Columbian reported.

The tribe of southwest Washington, which has about 3,500 members but no land of its own, plans to develop the property into tribal offices, housing, a tribal center as well as a massive casino-resort complex with a roughly 134,000-square-foot casino.

"I know there's legal wrangling around all this, but it's certainly a huge victory for the Cowlitz people," Cowlitz Tribal Chairman William Iyall told the newspaper.

"The land going into trust will be a huge milestone, a historic milestone 150 years in the making. It's taken a long time to get here. It is justice served."

Plaintiffs who challenged the federal government's decisions questioned the Cowlitz tribe's historical ties to the area west of Interstate 5, the newspaper reported.

The tribal offices are 24 miles north of the site, and plaintiffs argued that the Cowlitz tribe just wanted their reservation to be an easy 16-mile drive from Portland to attract casino customers in that area.

The plaintiffs include the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community of Oregon, which owns and operates a casino that would compete with any future casino built on the land.

Others who sued include Clark County and the city of Vancouver, property owners and card room businesses. The plaintiffs include a group called Citizens Against Reservation Shopping, which includes The Columbian's publisher, Scott Campbell.

They argued that the federal government violated the law in issuing its decision to put the land into trust and to allow gambling on that land.

The Grand Ronde tribe on Friday said it needs to analyze the judge's opinion but it disagrees.

"We think the court missed many of the salient issues and facts," said Grand Ronde Tribal Council Chairman Reyn Leno. "Our tribe has remained vigilant throughout this process. We have always believed this case would be decided at the appellate level and we are prepared to appeal it."

Officials with Vancouver and Clark County said Friday that they needed more time to review the judge's opinion before deciding whether to appeal.

The federal government recognized the Cowlitz tribe in 2000. That ruling was challenged and affirmed in 2002, and the tribe applied to take the land into trust.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs issued a decision in 2010 that was challenged. A federal judge told the agency to rescind that 2010 decision and issue a new one, which was also challenged.

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