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Naskila celebrates sixth anniversary

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Naskala celebratesz

Amid struggle to keep doors open

By Emily Banks Wooten
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Over 100 supporters of the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas gathered Monday to celebrate the sixth anniversary of the opening of Naskila Gaming and its profound economic benefit to the region. Elected officials, community supporters, tribal citizens and others marked the anniversary of Naskila Gaming, an electronic bingo facility that has welcomed more than 5 million guests since it opened in May 2016.

“Thanks to the success of this facility, we are able to take better care of our people: our elders, our sick, our families and our children,” Tribal Council Chairman Ricky Sylestine said. “But the impact on the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas is only part of what we are celebrating today. In fact, what we are celebrating is a major economic engine for East Texas.”

The largest private sector employer in Polk County, Naskila Gaming is responsible for 700 jobs and an annual economic impact estimated to be $170 million. When it was shut down for numerous months in 2020 due to the pandemic, its employees were still paid, so that they could provide for their families. “We are grateful to have contributed to the economic development of this region,” Sylestine said.

“Congratulations on continuing to move forward. It has been a wonderful experience for me to partner with the tribe to make a better place for the tribe and a better way of life,” Polk County Judge Sydney Murphy said, commenting on the economic development for Polk County as well as the benefits and healthcare the facility provides.

“We couldn’t ask for a better leader or a better friend to our tribe,” Sylestine said of Murphy.

  Throughout Monday’s celebration, tribal leadership recognized and thanked elected officials who have fought on behalf of tribal citizens and Naskila Gaming employees.

“We are extremely proud of what Naskila and the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas have built here and we’re very, very encouraged by the legacy you’ll leave for many generations,” State Rep. James White, who has long represented the tribe in the Texas Legislature, said.

“This is a regional effort that will have an effect on East Texas and all of the 12 counties in the DETCOG region and the State of Texas,” Eddie Hopkins, executive director of the Jasper Economic Development Corporation, said.

Rachel Iglesias, a member of U.S. Rep. Brian Babin’s staff, read a certificate from Babin expressing support for the tribe and Naskila. While Babin has represented the tribe in Washington for many years, the reservation will no longer be in his congressional district following the redistricting that was signed into law last year. “Y’all have been a friend to him for many years and even after redistricting he wants to be a champion for you all,” Iglesias said.

“We’re celebrating six years of Naskila but in reality, we’re celebrating our tribe’s tribal sovereignty which is the right of Indian tribes to govern themselves,” Tribal Council Treasurer Ronnie Thomas said. “It allows our people to follow our cultural traditions and way of life – to build homes, give raises and pay for college tuition and books. We recently broke ground on a new educational center.

“We are facing this challenge as a sovereign people … to sustain our people and traditions,” Thomas said.

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments Feb. 22 in a case brought by Ysleta Del Sur Pueblo, a federally recognized tribe in El Paso. The Alabama-Coushatta Tribe will also be affected by the ruling as the oral arguments presented could make clear that the two federally recognized tribes in Texas are allowed to operate the electronic bingo facilities on their reservations.

The case is extremely important to the economy and the people of Texas because a ruling from the Supreme Court has the potential to end the State of Texas’ longtime effort to prevent the two tribes from offering electronic bingo on their reservations.

“The Court’s term ends at the end of June, so sometime between today and the end of June but that’s all we know,” a member of the tribe’s legal team said, when asked when a ruling is expected.

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Texas crawfish acres expand

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Crawfish continue to gain popularity around Texas. Production acres increased by around 2,500 acres over the past three years. Texas A&M AgriLife photo by Adam RussellCrawfish continue to gain popularity around Texas. Production acres increased by around 2,500 acres over the past three years. Texas A&M AgriLife photo by Adam Russell

By Adam Russell
Texas A&M AgriLife Extension
Communication Specialist

Texas crawfish emerged from the pandemic in good condition, but cooler winter weather kept poundage yields down during this season’s peak, according to a Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service expert. Whether you call them crawfish, crayfish or mudbugs, Todd Sink, Ph.D., AgriLife Extension aquaculture specialist and director of the AgriLife Extension Aquatic Diagnostics Lab, Bryan-College Station, said the industry continues to grow in Texas.

And although yield numbers were above average, weights were down as a result of late-winter cold. The last three seasons have been difficult for the industry overall, he said. Sink said 2020 was a good harvest year for crawfish producers, but pandemic restrictions that led restaurants to close or limit capacity hurt demand for a food that is heavily dependent on social settings and events, including crawfish boils.

Then in 2021, Winter Storm Uri delivered another blow, he said. The extended cold snap did not kill crawfish, but it did stunt their growth, which made them smaller at the season’s peak. Numbers were typical, but the weights were below average. Hurricane Ida in late August 2021 presented another setback for overall crawfish production, Sink said. The storm didn’t impact Texas producers on a large scale, but some of Louisiana’s top crawfish-producing areas were ruined by infrastructure damages and saltwater swells that reached farms.

Sink said 2022 has been similar to 2021 with colder weather slowing crawfish growth and hurting poundage despite healthy numbers. “I would say we’ve reached pre-pandemic levels in that Texas’ crawfish production was going up every year,” he said. “But the sizes have been below average, so our poundage is probably not quite there yet.”

The per-pound price paid for crawfish depends on where and when consumers purchase them, Sink said. Lent, the 40-day period from Ash Wednesday and ending on the Holy Saturday before Easter, is typically when crawfish season peaks, Sink said. In 2020, on the first day of Lent, live crawfish were around $3 per pound or $90 per 30-pound bag around College Station, which is relatively close to farming operations in western Louisiana and Southeast Texas. This year, live crawfish were $4 per pound or $120 per bag. Prices were even higher this year in metropolitan areas like Austin, San Antonio and Dallas, where live crawfish prices routinely push beyond $4 per pound and even $5 per pound during peak demand, Sink said. “Most of the time it comes down to how far you are from crawfish production locations,” he said. “The bigger the market and farther away like Dallas, they can get expensive. Fuel prices have amped up those prices this year as well.” But after Easter, prices begin falling. Sink said he’d seen live crawfish for $2.35 per pound recently.

Sink said the recent calamities have not deterred growth of crawfish production in Texas. The state added around 2,500 acres of crawfish production over the past three years. This brings the state’s crawfish production capacity to approximately 9,500 acres. Pounds of crawfish are hard to pin down due to the lack of official reporting, but Sink believes producers average between 750-800 pounds per acre, or 6.75 million to 7.2 million pounds of crawfish.

Around 60% of Texas acres are dual-purpose flooded rice fields that provide habitat for crawfish farming until rice is planted. Those acres produce around 650 pounds of crawfish until they are shut down for rice planting. Acres dedicated solely to crawfish produce 900-950 pounds per acre and can be harvested a month to six weeks longer than rice acres, Sink said. Texas ranks No. 2 in crawfish production and remains far behind Louisiana in production. But he estimates Texas gained about as many acres as Louisiana lost this past year to economic hardship and hurricane damages and invasive apple snail infestations. “Texas maybe gained 1%-3%, but we are still small apples compared to Louisiana,” he said.

In 2019, Louisiana crawfish farmers harvested 150 million pounds of crawfish from 250,000 acres. Sink said the popularity of crawfish continues to grow. A recent article by Aquaculture North America reported crawfish popularity hit a record high this season based on domestic and foreign demand from countries like China. “It’s been a strange couple of years for crawfish producers,” Sink said. “I’m looking forward to a year with a mild winter and without any disruptions. That should bump our numbers up.

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Updated 4:35 p.m. - Breaking - Robbery at Naskila Gaming

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Theft

By Brian Besch

A man is in custody after a robbery led police on a chase this morning
from Naskila Gaming.

The call came into the Alabama-Coushatta Police Department at 5:58
a.m. and they were on the scene one minute later. They entered the
parking lot to find a man, identified as Marquel Fitzgerald, 34, of
Houston, sprinting to a white Dodge Charger with multiple cash-out
tickets. Fitzgerald is said to have a “lengthy history” with law
enforcement and will now face multiple felony charges stemming from
this incident.

“That's what started this, he grabbed those and fled,”
Alabama-Coushatta Police Chief Rex Evans said. “One of the guests had
placed them (at the cashier's booth) and the cashier just had not
reached up to get them yet. It was that fast. It was almost like a
smash-and-grab robbery; very similar to that. The opportunity
presented itself and this was a career criminal. He took advantage of
the opportunity.”

There is also one patron in which Fitzgerald had contact and law
enforcement is still trying to determine whether the items stolen were
cash, tickets or both from the senior citizen.

The pursuit began immediately thereafter.

“The suspect did flee with property from the casino and threw that
property out of the window as the chase was underway,” Evans said. “We
have recovered some of that property and detectives are still getting
an accurate picture of what all that property is.”

Law enforcement was led on a pursuit down Highway 190, then southbound
on Highway 59. The chase ended in Kingwood just past North Park Drive
at the Kingwood Drive exit.

A tire blew out from damage involved in one of two accidents he had
with civilians.

Livingston PD, DPS and sheriff’s officers from Polk, Montgomery, San
Jacinto, Liberty and Harris County were all on the scene to assist the
Alabama-Coushatta PD.

“It was a serious situation, no doubt,” Evans said. “A lot of people
were involved and unfortunately Mr. Fitzgerald made a lot of poor
decisions that put us all in a tough spot.”

Once the suspect’s vehicle came to a stop, Fitzgerald remained in the
Dodge Charger for several minutes before exiting and obeying police
commands.

“There was a constant state of negotiation with him verbally, trying
to get him to exit the vehicle. At first, you just never know where
those situations may go, but he did eventually come around. You don't
want to see anyone injured or lose their life. I am glad he chose the
peaceful alternative. For the start of a bad situation, this is the
best possible outcome. I just wish he had not made the decisions that
he made.”

Evans said there has been no indication that a weapon was displayed,
nor was a weapon located inside the vehicle at the endpoint of the
pursuit.

Detectives are currently attempting to process how many were inside
the gaming center at the time of the robbery.

Multiple charges could be considered, Evans said, including federal
charges, since the crime occurred on the reservation. Among them are
felony evading, two counts of failure to stop and give information
from civilian vehicles struck during the chase, along with the
robbery.

 

 

Original Story

By Brian Besch

A man is in custody after a robbery led police on a chase this morning
from Naskila Gaming.

The call came into the Alabama-Coushatta Police Department at 5:58
a.m. and they were on the scene one minute later.

The pursuit began immediately thereafter, Alabama-Coushatta Police
Chief Rex Evans said.

“It was at the casino and the detectives are still on the scene
processing everything,” he said. “The suspect did remove some property
from the casino. Part of our investigation is still underway. The
suspect did flee with property from the casino and threw that property
out of the window as the chase was underway. We have recovered some of
that property and detectives are still getting an accurate picture of
what all that property is.”

Evans said at this time there has been no indication that a weapon was
displayed, nor was a weapon located inside the vehicle at the endpoint
of the pursuit.

The suspect is currently being described only as an adult male. Law
enforcement is currently awaiting fingerprints to return for
confirmation. However, Evans said his driver's license photograph and
the suspect’s face do match. The suspect's vehicle, reportedly a white
Dodge, also matches his driver's license information.

Law enforcement was led on a pursuit down Highway 190, then southbound
on Highway 59. The chase ended in Kingwood just past North Park Drive
at the Kingwood Drive exit.

Detectives are currently attempting to process how many were inside
the casino at the time of the robbery.

Multiple charges could be considered, Evans said, including federal
charges, since the crime occurred on the reservation. Among them are
felony evading, two counts of failure to stop and give information
from civilian vehicles struck during the chase, along with the
robbery.

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The Great Outdoors - Livingston State Park back, better than ever

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GreatOutDoors

By Brian Besch
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Most years, Texas gets a short period in the spring and fall when the weather turns nice and getting outside doesn’t make one freeze or fry. It’s a time for travel and getting out into nature.

Livingston State Park is in the nature business, so it wasn’t good timing to have issues that kept patrons away from mid-March to early May. Closures of any type aren’t ideal, but that small window of chamber of commerce weather was mostly lost.

“Our main water line that supplies water to the water tower here in the park, which provides all of the drinking water and all of the restrooms with water, broke,” Ranger Joel Janssen said of the reason for closing. “We were unable to provide any water to the entire park. That meant all of the water fountains were down, all of the campsites were down and all of the restrooms. For public health and safety, we were unable to be open to the public because we just couldn’t provide them with the facilities they would need in order to be safe and healthy here at the park.”

In order to keep busy, improve the park and maintain a staff presence, employees and volunteers got to work. 

“We decided to improve conditions in the park, so everyone banded together,” Janssen said. “The office ladies and the office staff and the park store — everyone got involved in working on trails and doing big projects that are normally outside of their wheelhouse. It really enabled us to do a lot of things that we would not have been able to get done without piecemealing it here and there. We’ve had this list of tasks we wanted to do as far as improvements in the park. Really, this closure was the perfect opportunity for us to get those done since we couldn’t be open to the public. It was a chance for us to really improve conditions in the park for visitors.”

Janssen mentioned dropping trees near campsites and working on trails while no one was around to be disturbed. Boardwalks were coated with non-slip paint without need to close the trail.

Volunteers and park hosts continued to live in the park, despite no running water. The park generally preaches refilling water bottles to cut down on plastic waste, but needed to use pallets of bottled water in order to accommodate those providing labor. Some staff continued to take deliveries and answer phones.

The problem coincided with the beginning of spring break at Livingston ISD, lasting until the second day of May. There was an attempt made on a few different dates to open for day-use, but water problems persisted and a long-term closure seemed the only option.

“Instead of putting a patch on the water line, (we decided to) go ahead and get the right parts ordered and get everything in,” the ranger said. “We added a huge sand filter to the system, because sand was coming up through those lines that had broken. Throughout the entire time, we maintained proper cleanliness of the water, but we were under a boil water notice just in case. That has since been rescinded. Folks are able to drink the water and use it in their campers in the park and all of the restrooms are back open again.

“We ended up having to close the park Saturday of spring break around noon and ask everyone to vacate the park. That’s never the call you want to make, but for the health and safety of the public, we had to evacuate the park. That is never an easy thing to do, to go around to every campsite and say, ‘Sorry you have a brisket cooking, but we have to close the park immediately.’”

Jansen was forced to inform around 100 campsites of the immediate closure, admitting they weren’t fun conversations. However, he said everyone was cordial and understood.

This wasn’t the first pause from the public. Over the past couple of years, time was also utilized when Covid-19 became an issue, causing restricted access and social distancing. 

“We saw a drop off right at first and we got some major renovation work done,” Janssen said of the early spike of cases in Texas. They actually closed the fishing pier off and the entire park store area. We put a brand-new bulkhead and sidewalk in there. They put a new ADA ramp that leads from the parking lot all the way down to the fishing pier. They put a brand-new fish cleaning station and now it has screen all the way around it, so you don’t have mosquitoes bothering you and there are no flies in there. That was a major undertaking. A couple of years before that, we had parts of the park closed, where they would close a loop or two and they redid the roads and the driveways. We took out all of the old tent pads, because tents are a lot bigger than they used to be and they wouldn’t fit.”

Many stayed home at the onset of Covid-19, but within six months, Janssen said they began making their way back. In fact, there was an increase in numbers from those pre-Covid. 


Roads, driveways and parking spots all have large sweeping curves to accommodate larger vehicles and RVs. When the park was built back in 1977, camping units and recreational vehicles were much smaller. Some trees have been cut to provide enough room, but volunteers, including scouts and master naturalists, were available to help plant a tree for each one eliminated.

“We were able to get back to the more native species of trees here at the park, versus the trees that were planted before it was turned into a state park, because 100 years ago, this was all cattle pasture basically. We are trying really hard to get it back to its native ecosystem, which is obviously a goal of all state parks.”

Next year, Texas Parks and Wildlife turns 100 and there will be centennial celebrations at every park with special events geared toward promoting state parks and sharing their history.

“It will be how we have changed over 100 years, but the experiences have stayed the same. That experience of camping and enjoying the outdoors, of catching your first fish or taking a hike in the woods has never changed. We have always provided that experience.”

For those new to the camping experience, a program is available to teach the basics. 

“Texas Outdoor family is a program we have where you can sign up for a weekend and you pay a nominal fee around $75. It includes all of your camping permits and they provide camping gear, so they are going to bring a tent, they are going to start a fire, they will provide one dinner for you, and you bring the rest of your food. They are going to teach you how to make a fire, how to take kayaks and bicycles out, and they will even show you geocaching and using a GPS to find cool, hidden objects in parks. For folks that are kind of nervous or not sure where to get started, they provide that experience and expertise and you have rangers staying the night with you out there to make it more comfortable.”

Janssen mentioned the health benefits of enjoying nature and that some doctors are prescribing nature as a de-stressing agent. He said a study has shown that kids today spend seven minutes outdoors and seven hours in front of screens.

“If I can get kids to play in the dirt for five minutes, I have them hooked. That part of nature and free play in the outdoors is something we are missing. Folks that haven’t been here in five or six years are literally seeing a brand-new park. I have the coolest job in state parks, because I get to help kids catch their first fish, shoot their first bow and arrow, go out on a kayak for the first time or see a bald eagle. It is really neat to watch them put their phones down for a few minutes and just enjoy nature.”

Reservations for the park can be made about five months in advance and the group activity center can be booked a year in advance for weddings or family reunions. It is easier to get a campsite on weekdays, whereas weekends are almost always fully booked. The time between Memorial Day and Labor Day is a busy season and visitors may experience difficulties entering the park on weekends without a reservation. For natural resource protection and management, the number of vehicles and people are restricted.

Visit their website at tpwd.texas.gov for a list of upcoming activities at the park. All programs are free and they also hold events for church or school groups with enough advanced notice.

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Fight for Naskila Gaming continues

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AlabamaCoushattaTribalCouncil graphicBy Ricky Sylestine
Alabama-Coushatta Tribal Council Chairman

The past year has been full of promise and opportunity for the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas’ effort to keep our Naskila Gaming electronic bingo facility open. We have seen positive movement in the courts and in the halls of the United States Congress, but our fight is far from over.

All of these moving pieces can be difficult to follow. Given the many questions we have received, I want to explain where we are in this quest and what needs to happen next.

For many years, the State of Texas has been fighting in court to close Naskila Gaming. If the state succeeds, our tribe will have to close Naskila, 700 jobs will go away, and Polk County will lose its second-largest employer. Furthermore, our tribe will lose our clearest path to long-term sustainability and self-determination. This is why we and our supporters have fought so hard for our right to operate this facility. We believe that we have the right to operate Naskila Gaming under federal law and prior court rulings, and we know the benefits of this facility reverberate throughout our region.

Last year, a federal judge in Beaumont ruled that the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas may legally operate Naskila Gaming, saying that the electronic bingo operated at the facility is permissible under the federal Restoration Act passed in 1987. Many supporters heard about this decision and assumed that the future of Naskila was secure.

However, Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office has appealed that decision from last year. Further, that appeal is subject to a ruling in a separate court case: a case that another Texas tribe, Ysleta del Sur Pueblo, has filed against the state. The Pueblo, like our tribe, is fighting for the right to operate electronic bingo under federal law. That case is currently before the U.S. Supreme Court and a decision could come within weeks. If the court sides with the Pueblo, it could finally clear the way for both of our tribes to operate our electronic bingo facilities without any further state interference.

Of course, a court ruling can take many different shapes. A partially favorable ruling, for instance, may not end this case. That’s why the best way to save 700 jobs at Naskila Gaming and secure the future of our tribe is for the U.S. Congress to act.

Last year, the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 2208 with overwhelming bipartisan support. This legislation would clarify the federal law under which our tribe’s gaming is regulated, which would secure our right to operate Naskila Gaming and end the state’s efforts to shut it down. However, the Senate has not acted on this bill. Senators have until the end of this year to pass H.R. 2208 and save 700 Texas jobs, but it would be better for them to act sooner rather than later.

More than 80 business and civic groups have voiced formal support for Naskila’s continued existence and more than 30,000 visitors to Naskila have sent our senators letters urging them to save the facility. We need more Texans to call on Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz to preserve these Texas jobs. If they hear from enough of their Texas constituents, perhaps our senators will step in and save this major engine of economic activity in East Texas.

That’s where our supporters come in. We thank you for all that you’ve done to get us to this point and we ask you to keep going by contacting our senators and urging them to save Naskila Gaming. We may ultimately win the court cases that are now pending, but we know the clearest path to a resolution is for the U.S. Senate to act. Until then, our push to save Naskila Gaming continues.

Or, to put it in a language that all of us speak in East Texas, we’ve picked up a couple of first downs, but the winning touchdown has not yet been scored.

Ricky Sylestine is the Chairman of the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas Tribal Council.

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