The Biden administration is poised to move forward with a plan to allow a tribe in the Pacific Northwest to build a second casino far beyond its territory, a move other tribes and Democrats in the region have argued vehemently against.
The Department of the Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) is expected to issue a final environmental impact statement (EIS) potentially green-lighting the Oregon-based Coquille Indian Tribe's proposal to develop and operate a casino outside its territory in Medford, Oregon, as soon as this week, people familiar with the federal review process told Fox News Digital.
The BIA issued its draft EIS in November 2022 for the proposal and the public comment period for that action lasted until late February. A wide range of voices, including several regional tribes, tribes nationwide and bipartisan lawmakers, blasted the draft EIS which recommended the federal government approve Coquille's move to build an off-reservation casino, the so-called Cedars at Bears Creek.
"The Coquille Indian Tribe’s application to transfer fee land in Medford, Oregon into trust for gaming using the restored lands exception directly threatens the sovereign rights of tribal governments to operate gaming on their lands," the Tribal Alliance of Sovereign Indian Nations, which represents 13 tribes in California, wrote to BIA Assistant Secretary Bryan Newland earlier this month.
In a similar letter to Newland, the California Nations Indian Gaming Association, which represents dozens more federally-recognized tribal governments on issues related to gaming, similarly argued that finalizing the draft EIS would threaten its members' "sovereign rights" as tribes.
The issue over whether to approve the Coquille's casino has been hotly-contested since the tribe first proposed the plan about a decade ago. The plan was proposed under an Obama administration policy that eased gaming and trust-land acquisition restrictions, an action that critics have worried the Biden administration is doubling down on.
But opponents of the Cedars at Bear Creek proposal — including the California Nations Indian Gaming Association, Tribal Alliance of Sovereign Indian Nations, other tribes and lawmakers — have particularly argued that developing the project would infringe upon other nearby tribes' rights and have the impact of lowering their gaming revenue.
They have also said the move would set a dangerous precedent whereby tribes are able to freely build gaming venues on or near other tribes' lands and reap the financial benefits. The Coquille already operate the Mill Casino in North Bend, Oregon, and the Cedars at Bear Creek casino would be the first off-reservation casino in Oregon.
"The bottom line is if the Coquille Tribe is allowed to build another casino in Oregon, it will likely lead to allout gaming conflicts between Oregon and California tribes," Democratic Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, and Democratic Sen. Alex Padilla of California wrote last year to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland.
"It would also have a detrimental impact on tribes in Oregon and California that rely on the income generated by their gaming facilities and utilize those funds to provide vital governmental services," they continued. "This would have negative consequences in many of our communities if Oregon and California's carefully crafted balance between producing gambling revenues and an overall focus of public good for our citizens were seriously compromised by the Department of Interior approving a second casino for the Coquille Tribe."
Democratic Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek and Reps. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., Jared Huffman, D-Calif., Cliff Bentz, R- Ore., and Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif., have also opposed the new Cedars at Bear Creek casino.
In addition, a broad coalition of tribes in the region led by the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians, whose territory is near the site of the proposed casino, and including the Karuk, Tolowa Dee-Ní, Smith River and Klamath Tribes, have appealed to the federal government to reject the proposal. The Cow Creek have noted Coquille's own estimates that show Cow Creek’s Seven Feathers Casino Resort would suffer a 25% decrease in gaming revenue if Cedars at Bear Creek is constructed.
"I want to emphasize the profound impact Coquille’s second casino would have on my Tribe and my people," Cow Creek Chair Carla Keene said during a BIA-hosted public hearing late last year. "It will impact essential governmental services that the Tribe provides. It will impact our education program. It will impact our ability to provide healthcare and social services that many of our members rely upon."
"If approved, and the doors open, this will open the floodgates for additional casinos in the State by this one Tribe," added Cow Creek CEO Michael Rondeau. "The other Tribes do not enjoy that ability to open second casinos. The casino is 150 miles from their reservation."
Stephen Dow Beckham, an expert of Native American history and the Pamplin Chair of History at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon, said during a second public hearing in January 2023 that the proposal was "wrongheaded."
"Never have I seen a case of more blatant, glaring reservation-shopping than the proposal of the Coquille Tribe to reach 168 miles from North Bend, Oregon into the treaty cession area of the Rogue River tribes to try to justify a second casino and entertainment venue," Beckham remarked at the time.
"The Coquille Tribe was not an aboriginal tribe in the Rogue River Valley. It lived over on the coast of Oregon. This project will have deleterious impacts on neighboring tribes," he continued. "The impacts of the Coquille casino will undermine the delivery of services to the Karuk, the Klamath, the Tolowa, the Smith River and the Cow Creek peoples; all so that another tribe from North Bend, Oregon can have a second casino and hotel."
And last week, Russell Attebery, the chair of the Karuk Tribe in California; Jeff Grubbe, the former chair of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians in California; and Marshall Pierite, the chair of the Tunica-Biloxi Tribe of Louisiana, penned an op-ed called on President Biden to reject the proposed casino and "stop this policy that will cause casino gaming to cascade nationally without any bounds, hurting historically marginalized Indigenous peoples the hardest."
They noted that rejecting the proposal would be a good-faith gesture from the administration ahead of the upcoming White House Tribal Nations Summit in early December.
"As a Tribal Nation that has restored a vast part of its ancestral homelands, we know the challenges associated with assembling our homelands," Pierite, of the Tunica-Biloxi Tribe, told Fox News Digital. "Where we come from and where we belong still matters. The land into trust process must honor the ancestral relationship our Tribal Nations have with our homelands."
"Career bureaucrats at DOI appear to be drifting away from that understanding," he continued. "The White House has an opportunity to make a correction before the Tribal Nations Summit next month."
In a social media post Friday, Wyden shared Pierite and the other tribal leaders' op-ed and said the Biden administration "must reaffirm its commitment to tribal communities and how the misguided policy at the root of the Medford casino proposal is harming tribes across the country."
However, according to the BIA's drafted EIS issued last year, the Coquille Tribe and its citizens have suffered financially for years due to changing Oregon coast demographics, economic stagnation, an increasing population in need of tribal services and persistently high inflation. The agency said revenue from the tribe's sole casino is now insufficient to sustain the tribe's needs.
Under the plan, if Cedars at Bear Creek is constructed, the Coquille would be able to divert revenue generated to sustain existing tribal programs and help fund new initiatives "critical to meeting the needs of the Tribe’s growing and changing membership," all of which would maintain the tribe's "self-determination and self-sufficiency," the BIA stated.
"The failure of economic development efforts in the region have driven job seekers out of the community, contributing to a diminishing population and a lack of financial prospects," the BIA stated in the draft EIS. "This situation was further worsened with the addition of tribal gaming competition within the Mill Casino's limited local market, combined with increasing costs, including those associated with the future impacts of Oregon’s minimum wage law."
"Based on the underlying causes of the Mill Casino’s trend of declining revenue, it is unlikely that the Mill Casino, with its current limitations, will experience revenue growth in the foreseeable future," it continued.
Once the BIA issues its final EIS, another public comment period would commence, after which the agency would issue its final record of decision.
The BIA and Coquille Tribe didn't respond to requests for comment.