A growing number of Oregon officials and citizens are asking federal legislators to address whether tribal rights supersede resource protection in the nation's first Scenic Area.
"The question is whether Congress intended to have land removed from the Scenic Area and given an urban-intensive use," said Martha Bennett, executive director of the Columbia River Gorge Commission, the bi-state entity which oversees Scenic Area protection.
That question has been raised by the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs' recent move to reclassify 160 newly acquired acres as trust land. The tribe wants to use those parcels, currently subject to land-use restrictions under the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act, to support a gambling casino on adjacent trust land just east of Hood River.
"This is an issue of national significance involving the only National Scenic Area in the country, which is paid for by every tax paying citizen," said Toni Vakos, No-Casino coordinator.
State Rep. Patti Smith, R-Corbett, U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, and State Sen. Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day, have also written letters to the Dept. of the Interior outlining the same concerns. Government bodies at all levels are asking that a full Environmental Impact Statement be done on the properties before a decision is made on their reclassification.
"Development of these lands would seriously impact the intent and spirit of the National Scenic Area Act," stated a recent letter submitted by the city of Hood River to Neal McCaleb, assistant secretary for the Department of the Interior who oversees the Office of Indian Affairs. That letter joined the same request submitted by the Hood River County Commission.
But at a special mediation meeting in Hood River on Wednesday, Jason Daughn, legislative aide to U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Portland, said that federal officials should not be the decision-makers on the issue.
"The last thing you guys want is a bunch of bureaucrats getting together in D.C. to solve all your problems," said Daughn.
In response to Daughn's apparent unwillingness to take action, Vakos sent a written statement to him on Thursday that said, "It is absolutely unreasonable and inappropriate to expect a very small group of local officials and citizens to decide on an issue that affects the whole country."
At the Sept. 19 forum held in the Expo Center conference room, the five tribal representatives reminded the other 40 people in attendance that they already had a guaranteed access to the existing 40-acre trust parcel whether the new lands were reclassified or not. They also reiterated that their ancestors had inhabited the Gorge long before other settlers arrived and their treaty rights from 1855 predated even the formation of Oregon's government.
"Our people have been here since time and the beginning, us and the fish," said tribal council member Raymond Tsumpti. "If there's any competition we'll take it on, we're going to do what the law allows and what is right for our people and future generations."
Dennis Karnopp, tribal attorney, said the bad lumber market and other economic problems within the tribal community had forced its leaders to seek alternate revenue sources. He said the tribe had launched a study of all possible trust land locations for the casino and Hood River was the only viable option.
Karnopp said the tribe was moving ahead on that project since Gov. John Kitzhaber had vetoed a previous proposal to build a casino on Government Rock, an island in the Cascade Locks urban area that the tribe purchased in 1999.
At Wednesday's meeting, Friends of the Columbia Gorge, an environmental watchdog group, voiced strong opposition to tribal plans to build a casino in either location. Although only the Hood River property lies within a development restricted zone of the Scenic Area, Michael Lang, Friends conservation director, said constructing a casino on the island in the Columbia River could adversely affect its surrounding Scenic Area resources.
Although local officials were in favor of a united push to change Kitzhaber's mind about the Cascade Locks site, Susan Crowley, both a member of Friends and No-Casino, said that move could open the "floodgates" for other Native American tribes to buy holdings in the Gorge and make requests to build gaming facilities.
Greg Leo, tribal outreach coordinator, said the next session to find "common ground" among the involved parties will be hosted by the Warm Springs tribe on Oct. 3. He said a tour will be given of the facilities there and possibly a preliminary outline of design plans for Hood River.