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Friday, November 25, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Gambling license approved for Cowlitz casino

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The National Indian Gaming Commission has approved a gambling license for a proposed casino to be operated by the Cowlitz Indian Tribe in southwestern Washington state.

Wednesday's commission decision details rules for gambling at the proposed casino, but does not authorize the tribe to conduct gaming at the site, near La Center, Clark County, about 15 miles north of Vancouver.

The gaming commission is independent of any federal agency, including the Department of Interior and its Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Interior Secretary Gale Norton is considering the tribe's application for a land-in-trust agreement that would allow the Cowlitz — a landless tribe with offices in Longview — to open a casino and hotel on 152 acres of pasture off Interstate 5, about 25 miles north of Portland.

Tribal gambling operations are also subject to state approval.

If approved, the $510 million Cowlitz Casino and Resort would be the closest Indian casino to the Portland metropolitan area. The Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde operate Spirit Mountain Casino, about 60 miles southwest of Portland, while the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs are seeking to build a casino, hotel and conference center in Cascade Locks, Ore., about 40 miles east of Portland.

Gaming commission Chairman Phil Hogen called Wednesday's ruling significant, but stressed that the panel is an independent agency with no direct influence on the Interior Department.

In a letter to Tribal Chairman John Barnett, Hogen said the decision was "not intended to provide any recommendation to the Secretary of the Interior regarding the Tribe's pending fee-to-trust application, or to affect the secretary's discretion in making the fee-to-trust decision."

Hogen said the panel based its approval on the Cowlitz tribe's receiving federal recognition in 2000, its historical ties to the area, and the fact that it has no reservation or other trust land.

David Barnett, a Cowlitz member who is leading the effort to establish the casino, said the tribe was pleased at the panel's decision.

"This is just a small part of a long and large process," Barnett said.

The proposed casino would feature a 134,150-square-foot gaming floor and a 250-room hotel.

The BIA is considering the tribe's application to have 152 acres at the La Center-I-5 junction declared federal trust lands. That would be a crucial step in earning agency approval for gaming there.

An environmental impact statement on the project is expected next year. The tribe is working in partnership with the Mohegan Tribe of Connecticut, which owns the Mohegan Sun casino in Uncasville, Conn.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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