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Friends challenge legality of tribal road

The road to success may not be easy -- but it could be even more rocky if it was constructed illegally.

Friends of the Columbia Gorge is challenging the 714-foot section of new access road built by the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs just east of Hood River. According to Greg Leo, tribal spokesman, that passage was used to bring the equipment needed for engineering studies onto the 40-acre trust site proposed for a gambling casino.

"Casino advocates have assured the public that they will be good neighbors. Ignoring Gorge protection and building an illegal road is not very neighborly," said Michael Lang, Friends conservation director.

But Leo said the tribe followed the right protocol since it was upgrading an existing logging road, which is allowed without a special review on Scenic Area forest lands. The new path crosses some of the newly-acquired tribal property zoned for commercial forest use under the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.

However, Hood River County Planning Director Michael Benedict contends that by cutting a new eight-foot embankment and removing trees to widen the road, the tribe has changed its size, which could not be done without prior approval. Benedict has sent a written request asking for tribal input on how the issue can be resolved without further enforcement action.

Both No-Casino leader Dave Russell and North Cheatham, who owns property bordering the tribal trust land, believe that the Warm Springs has no special right to circumvent the law since the new lands are not exempt from regulation with "sovereign" trust status.

"It's something of an affront to expect me to comply with all the rules and regulations when my neighbors can do anything they want," said Cheatham.

"We're really pretty concerned that these guys are setting a precedent of doing whatever they want to do and ignoring standard operating procedure," said Russell.

The latest controversy over tribal plans to site a casino east of Hood River has arrived as the comment period ends on its request to convert more than 160 acres of new property into trust status. That request will be decided by the assistant secretary for Indian Affairs under the Department of the Interior. The application has been opposed by Hood River County, Klickitat County, Wash., the cities of hood River and White Salmon, Wash., the Columbia River Gorge Commission, the state of Oregon, the U.S. Forest Service and the Grand Ronde Tribe.

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