Birchwood council asks state to oppose lawsuit that could bring a casino to the area

Thursday, December 12, 2019 - 14:25
  • A sign marks private property on land near Birchwood Spur Road in Chugiak. The Native Village of Eklutna has filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Interior Department in a continuing campaign to open a tribal gaming hall about 20 miles north of downtown Anchorage, in what Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz, a supporter, has described as a modest Class II casino.” (Matt Tunseth / Chugiak-Eagle River Star)

Birchwood Community Council members voted Wednesday to ask the Alaska Attorney General’s office to oppose the Native Village of Eklutna in its lawsuit against the U.S. Department of the Interior.

In a 10-3 vote, council members said they would like the state to oppose the lawsuit, which if successful, could allow the tribal government to open a gaming facility on a small parcel of private land near the intersection of the Birchwood Spur Road and the Alaska Railroad tracks in Birchwood. Council member Matt Cruickshank offered the motion asking the state to oppose any action that would be incompatible with the area’s comprehensive plan.

“This clearly is not compatible,” he said.

[[READ MORE: Eklutna sues federal government in pursuit of tribal gaming operation (Via ADN)]]

The Native Village of Eklutna — which is a separate entity from Eklutna Inc., the local Native corporation — is arguing in federal court that the 8-acre family allotment should qualify as “Indian Country.” However, the state argues Indian Country does not apply in Alaska, where Native land claims were adjudicated in the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act that created Alaska’s system of Native corporations rather than reservations.

If the lawsuit succeeds in federal court, the Native Village of Eklutna would like to build a gaming hall featuring simulated pull tabs and bingo, which council member Debbie Ossiander argued would essentially be slot machines.

Ossiander said she spoke recently with a lawyer with the Alaska Department of Law who told her the State of Alaska is still weighing whether to join the federal government in opposing the lawsuit.

“She’s very interested in any discussion we have,” Ossiander said.

Nobody spoke in favor of the lawsuit or bringing a casino to Birchwood. However, those who said they opposed the motion argued that nobody from the Native Village of Eklutna had spoken on the matter and there had been no prior notice any action might be taken.

“It makes sense to me…to invite them to share their side of the story,” said council member Gretchen Wehmhoff.

However, those in favor of the motion said they were simply reinforcing their desire to adhere to the comprehensive plan and said taking a vote was proper due to the time-sensitive nature of the state’s pending decision.

“By following our comprehensive plan and asking the state to follow our comprehensive plan I don’t think we’re so radical,” Cruickshank said.

The motion and minutes from Wednesday’s meeting will now be sent to the Department of Law for its consideration.

Email Star editor Matt Tunseth at [email protected] or call (907) 257-4274

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