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Cascade Locks gets nod as possible Oregon tribal casino spot

By Steven Dubois
Portland, Oregon (AP) August 2010

The Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs cleared a key hurdle in its decade-long effort to build an off-reservation casino in the scenic Columbia River Gorge.

The federal Bureau of Indian Affairs released its final environmental impact statement Aug. 6, identifying an industrial park in the Gorge town of Cascade Locks as its preferred site for a casino. The agency, which examined five possible alternatives, said a Cascade Locks casino would bring needed money to the tribes while not doing any long-term harm to air quality or salmon habitat.

It was one of five gaming-related environmental impact statements published in the Aug. 6th issue of the Federal Register. Three dealt with California tribes and the fourth involved the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

Howard Arnett, an attorney for the Warm Springs, said the burst of movement follows a year in which the Interior Department had a “de facto moratorium” on gaming decisions.

“That’s why this EIS wasn’t released sooner,” he said. “It was in the Department of Interior ready to be released since last September.”

Though delayed, the action pleased Stanley “Buck” Smith, chairman of the Warm Springs Tribal Council. He said the drive to build a Gorge casino has taken so long that many on the reservation have forgotten about it. He said Friday’s decision would be celebrated on a reservation with sky-high unemployment.

“I think they’re already setting up a powwow or something,” Smith said.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and the Oregon governor must give final approval before the 25-acre parcel is taken into trust and construction can move forward. In a best-case scenario, tribal officials said, the casino could be operating in 2014.

But much could still go wrong.

Gov. Ted Kulongoski and the tribes signed a gaming compact five years ago authorizing the Columbia River Gorge site. Kulongoski leaves office in January and the major candidates to replace him, Democrat John Kitzhaber and Republican Chris Dudley, have expressed opposition to the project.

“Our objective is to try and get this done before the end of the year,” said Ken Smith, an advisor to the Warm Springs. “Kulongoski has been swell to work with. He understands the issue. He understands the problems we’re facing.”

Back in 1999, Kitzhaber, who was governor from 1995-2003, rejected the tribe’s request to build a casino in Cascade Locks. Dudley reiterated his opposition, saying he supports one casino per tribe on existing reservation land.

At a minimum, there is a 45-day waiting period before Salazar can sign off on the casino and it goes to the governor for his OK. Even if Salazar and Kulongoski approve the project, lawsuits would almost certainly be filed.

Opposition over the years has been led by the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, which has a casino 65 miles southwest of the lucrative Portland market and is concerned about a competitor moving to a spot 40 miles east of Oregon’s largest city. Justin Martin, a Grand Ronde spokesman, said the approval of an off-reservation casino would open the door to casino expansion across the state. He vowed litigation, if necessary, to stop it.

Environmentalists, meanwhile, worry about a casino marring the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.

“A gambling casino does not belong in any of America’s uniquely spectacular natural landscapes, and it is utterly absurd that the Bureau of Indian Affairs has recommended citing a casino in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge,” Congressman David Wu, D-Ore., said in a statement Aug. 6.

The Cascade Locks proposal calls for a 90,000-square foot gaming casino, a 241-room hotel and a 26,000 square-foot meeting and convention facility. Given its size and location, tribal officials expect the casino to generate far more revenue than the small casino currently operating on their central Oregon reservation.

Cascade Locks is within territory along the Columbia River ceded by the tribes in an 1855 treaty.

The tribes have trust land in nearby Hood River. Because of opposition from gorge conservationists and the local community to the scenic Hood River site, the Warm Springs proposed swapping that land for the spot in economically stressed Cascade Locks.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs, which is part of the Interior Department, considered the Hood River alternative in its environmental impact statement. The bureau concluded a casino there would make less money and be worse for the environment.