The D.C. Court of Appeals on April 16 upheld the U.S. Department of the Interior’s (DOI) decision to recognize the Wilton Rancheria as a federally recognized tribe, and place its land into a federal trust for the tribe’s casino.
The Wilton Rancheria and its partner, Boyd Gaming Corporation, broke ground last month for the tribe’s future, $500 million Sky River Casino on the former site of the “Ghost Mall” at Highway 99 and Kammerer Road. The tribe plans to open their casino on their 36-acre property in late 2022.
Filed by the Penryn-based casino watchdog group, Stand Up for California!, the lawsuit attempted to create a roadblock in the tribe’s effort to build a casino in Elk Grove.
In their 24-page opinion, the court’s judges found that DOI acted appropriately in placing Wilton Rancheria’s land in federal trust. It is noted that Stand Up’s argument, which was directed at blocking the tribe to assets as a federally recognized tribe, was “specious.”
A panel of three judges, in their April 16 ruling, also found that there was “no merit” in Stand Up’s argument that a new or supplemental Environmental Impact Statement should have been prepared when the tribe selected its Elk Grove site over its previous preferred site in Galt.
The more than 800-member tribe previously proposed seven possible sites for their casino, including the Galt and Elk Grove parcels.
The Department of the Interior placed the Elk Grove site into a federal trust for the tribe’s proposed casino project in 2017.
Wilton Rancheria’s history includes the termination of its tribal status in 1958, and its 2009 tribal restoration, which did not include land.
In their April 16 opinion, the panel also rejected Stand Up’s challenge that the Department of the Interior’s principal deputy was acting without authority when he acquired the title in trust for the tribe.
Wilton Rancheria Tribal Chair Jesus Tarango referred to the judges’ ruling as a “crucial milestone” for the tribe.
“The ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals represents a crucial milestone in our long struggle for self-sufficiency,” he told the Citizen. “Opponents funded by special interests with deep pockets have made one desperate attempt after another to use the legal system to stop our project. They have failed.”
Tarango added that the tribe is focused on moving forward with their casino project.
“Our tribal elders fought for more than 50 years to restore our tribal status and then we had to fight for our tribal land,” he said. “Today, we continue to move forward with our casino project, which will enable us to improve housing, education and health care for our members, and ensure that our culture, heritage and language are protected and preserved.
“At the same time, we will be giving back to the community, creating thousands of jobs and long-term economic benefits for Elk Grove and the region.”
Wilton Rancheria has agreed to invest $186 million over the first 20 years with the city of Elk Grove and Sacramento County to support police, schools, roads and other services. Sky River Casino will be the closest casino to both Sacramento and the south Bay Area.
Cheryl Schmit, the director of the Stand Up group, could not be reached for comment as of press time.