Tribes in Oregon clash over Class II off-reservation casino plan

The Coquille Tribe is proposing to open a Class II facility on land adjacent to its Bear Creek Golf Course in Medford, Oregon. The golf course is located on leased land and is not a part of a pending land-into-trust application. Photo from Medford Wins / Facebook

Class II gaming doesn't normally generate much controversy in Indian Country but one tribe's proposed facility is drawing strong political attention in Oregon.

The Coquille Tribe plans to build the Cedars at Bear Creek in Medford. Even though the 2.42-acre site is about 170 miles from the Mill Casino, a Class III facility in North Bend, the tribe doesn't see the distance as an obstacle.

The tribe believes the Coquille Restoration Act eases the path for the casino because Medford is in Jackson County, which falls within the tribal service area that was defined by Congress. The 1989 law restored the tribe to federal recognition.

Otherwise, the tribe might have go through the two-part determination process of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. That requires approval from the state governor in addition to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Artist's rendering of the Cedars at Bear Creek in Medford, Oregon. Image from Coquille EIS

Such a hurdle would be impossible to overcome now that Gov. Kate Brown (D) has come out against the project. She's planning to send a letter to the BIA this week to express her opposition to the tribe's land-into-trust application.

Brown's stance is based on a belief that each tribe can only operate one gaming facility. Coquille Chairwoman Brenda Meade dismissed the so-called "one tribe, one casino" policy as "political fantasy."

“I am saddened that Gov. Brown rushed to judgment on the Coquille Tribe’s economic development project in Medford,” Meade said in a press release. “She did so before a single page of analysis has been completed by the U.S. Department of the Interior.”

Some tribes in Oregon have indeed agreed to operate only one casino as part of their Class III gaming compacts. That pledge, however, would not extend to Class II gaming, an area over which the state has no control. In any event, the Coquilles never agreed to just one casino.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D) and former Gov. Ted Kulongoski (D) are seen here with an unidentified tribal member on the Warm Springs Reservation on April 9, 2016. Photo from Oregon Gov. Brown / Twitter

But to the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe, the issue goes much deeper. The tribe believes the Coquilles are exploiting federal law in a way that could lead to even more disputes in Indian Country.

"The ‘restored lands’ position Coquille is trying to use would set a precedent that would negatively impact 44 tribes and 54 gaming developments throughout Indian Country,” said Michael Rondeau, Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians CEO. “The effects would extend far past Southern Oregon, and into California and Michigan, given similar language in other tribal restoration acts. Coquille’s proposal is an attempt to circumvent the intent of the law and simply bad public policy.”

In Michigan, for example, the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians wants to open two casinos far from its existing reservation. The Nottawaseppi Huron Band of Potawatomi Indians and the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe oppose the new developments.

While the Sault Tribe's underlying legal theory differs from the one advanced by the Coquille Tribe, both are seeking to overcome IGRA's general ban on gaming on lands placed in trust after 1988 by avoiding the cumbersome two-part determination process.

The Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians owns and operates the Seven Feathers Casino Resort in Canyonville, Oregon. Photo from Facebook

Since IGRA became law in 1988, only three tribes have successfully opened casinos by receiving approval from the BIA and their respective state governors. That number will grow to four once the Enterprise Rancheria opens a Class II facility in northern California about a year from now.

On the other hand, tribes have seen more success by claiming an exception found in Section 20 of IGRA. According to Indian County Today, 67 such applications have been approved since 1988.

The Coquilles are claiming an exception that applies to tribes that were restored to federal recognition. Tribes in Oregon, California and Michigan are among those that received approval to open casinos on restored lands.

Like the Coquilles, the Cow Creek Band was restored to federal recognition by Congress. Both tribes had been terminated in the 1950s and lost all of their lands.

The Coquille Tribe owns and operates the Mill Casino in North Bend, Oregon. Photo from Facebook

The Cow Creek Band subsequently opened the Seven Feathers Casino Resort in Canyonville. The facility is much closer to Medford than the Coquille Tribe's casino, raising concerns about increased competition.

The Cow Creeks in fact already blamed the Coquilles for layoffs at Seven Feathers about a year ago. Seven Feathers is about 71 miles from the proposed Cedars at Bear Creek.

The BIA is still reviewing the environmental impact statement for the project. A scoping report was issued last June and will be followed by a draft EIS as part of the process. There is no timeline for a decision, which could be years away.

Additional Coverage from Oregon Media:
Gov. Brown opposes Medford casino (The Medford Mail Tribune 4/9)
Cow Creek Tribe responds to Gov. Brown’s opposition to Medford Casino (KOBI-TV 4/9)
Gov. Brown to oppose development of Medford casino (KTVI 4/8)
Coquille Tribe says Gov. Kate Brown doesn’t support plan for Medford casino (KOBI-TV 4/8)
Gov. Brown States Opposition to Medford Casino (KAJO 4/8)

Federal Register Notice:
Intent To Prepare an Environmental Impact Statement for the Proposed Coquille Indian Tribe Fee-to-Trust and Casino Project, City of Medford, Jackson County, Oregon (January 15, 2015)

Join the Conversation

Related Stories
Coquille Tribe awaits next step in bid for off-reservation casino (10/02)
Cow Creek Band continues to oppose new Coquille Tribe casino (07/02)
BIA releases scoping report for Coquille Tribe's Class II facility (6/30)
Oregon tribe ready to welcome visitors to new Class II facility (05/06)
City questions BIA's use of firm for Coquille Tribe's casino report (03/13)
Oregon tribes continue battle over new Class II gaming facility (3/12)
Tribes in Oregon planning to open Class II gaming facility in April (02/25)
Coquille Tribe not worried about competition from a new casino (02/06)
BIA holds public hearing on Coquille Tribe off-reservation casino (02/04)
Cow Creek Band ties casino layoffs to economy and rival tribe (02/03)
City seeks role in review of Coquille Tribe's off-reservation casino (01/19)
BIA moves forward with Coquille Tribe off-reservation casino bid (01/16)
Oregon tribe on track to open new gaming facility in late spring (01/12)
Coquille Tribe still waiting for BIA on off-reservation casino (11/11)
Oregon tribe anticipates May 2015 opening for Class II casino (10/31)
Cow Creek Band offered to pay Coquille Tribe for gaming land (04/25)