(CN) – The 9th Circuit dismissed an environmental group’s bid to block the Nooksack Indian Tribe from building a casino in a largely undeveloped, rural area in northwestern Washington.
In 1993, the National Indian Gaming Commission approved the Nooksacks request to build a new casino on a 20-acre parcel of tribal land about a half-mile south of the Canadian border and about 33 miles from the Nooksack reservation.
The North County Community Alliance said the land is “surrounded by vacant and non-Indian farming lands and woodlands.”
The alliance claimed the gaming commission shirked its duty to find out if the land was, in fact, Indian land – either when it approved the project in 1993, or when construction began in 2006.
They also accused the commission and the Department of the Interior of violating federal environmental laws by failing to fully analyze the casino’s impact on the environment.
U.S. District Judge John C. Coughenour dismissed the suit with prejudice, and the San Francisco-based appeals court affirmed on a 2-1 vote.
Judge Betty Fletcher of the appellate panel said the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act does not require the commission to determine the Indian lands status before approving the casino.
“Absent such an obligation, it would be absurdly impractical to require the NGIC to make an Indian lands determination as part of its approval of an ordinance,” Fletcher wrote.
The majority tersely dismissed the environmental claim, saying the defendants had no obligation under the National Environmental Policy Act, because “[t]here has been no major federal action in this case.”
In a partial dissent, Judge Ronald Gould said the gaming commission should have made an Indian lands determination before the casino construction began.
“I regret that the majority disregards the most salient fact of this case: The Nooksack Tribe built a casino that may or may not be on Indian lands,” Gould wrote.
“The majority acknowledged that we do not know whether it is or not,” he added. “Under the majority’s approach, we may never know whether it is or not.”