(CN) - The Cowlitz Indian Tribe can move forward with plans for a casino after a federal judge denied another tribe's request to block the project.
The Grande Ronde Tribe sued the Interior Department in 2013, claiming it illegally acquired land for the Cowlitz in Clark County, Washington, where the tribe wants to build a mega-casino and resort facility.
The action was consolidated with a suit by Clark County and the City of Vancouver, which also opposed the casino plans.
The Grande Ronde suit claims the agency's acquisition of the land for the Cowlitz, and its approval of gambling on that property, violated the Indian Reorganization Act, the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act.
In a lengthy opinion, U.S. District Judge Barbara Rothstein ruled on Friday the agency did not violate environmental laws, and was within its rights to set aside the land as a Cowlitz reservation with gaming privileges.
Rothstein said the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act "generally prohibits Indian gaming on lands acquired after October 17, 1988," but allowed for exceptions, including the restoration of lands for an Indian tribe that is restored to Federal recognition. According to the opinion, the National Indian Gaming Commission determined the Cowlitz is a restored tribe and could allow gambling on its land.
A second exception allows gaming if "lands are taken into trust as part of ... the initial reservation of an Indian tribe acknowledged by the Secretary under the Federal acknowledgment process," the opinion says.
"Because the IGRA does not define 'initial reservation,' the Secretary determines whether the tribe meets the 'initial reservation' exception when she decides to take land into trust. ... Under the pertinent agency regulations, a land may qualify as an 'initial reservation' if, inter alia, it is 'within an area where the tribe has significant historical connections,'" Rothstein wrote.
She said congress "left it up to the Secretary's expertise" to determine when land qualifies an initial reservation.
"As such, the Court properly defers to the Secretary's interpretation," the opinion said.
Rothstein also found the agency complied with NEPA and was not required to file a supplemental environmental impact statement.