No-Casino joins outcry over tribe's road

No-Casino activists have joined an outcry for enforcement action over an "illegal" road across tribal land just east of Hood River.

Friends of the Columbia Gorge and the Columbia River Gorge Commission have already registered protests over the new access road built by the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs last November. They contend the unpermitted grading of the 714-foot section violates the resource protection of the National Scenic Area Act.

On Jan. 27, Toni Vakos, No-Casino coordinator, sent a letter to Michael Benedict, county planning director, asking him to take a tough stand on the issue.

"I am confident that if a private landowner had attempted this construction, legal action would have been taken against that individual," said Vakos, who added that the "letter of the law" should apply to all persons equally.

Benedict said he plans to meet this week with Martha Bennett, executive director of the Gorge Commission, to discuss possible mitigation measures the tribe could take to repair any damages to vegetation in the area.

But Greg Leo, tribal spokesperson, said the Warm Springs would view any replanting requirements as "ridiculous." He said the old logging road was simply being maintained and repaired as allowed by law for safe passage of heavy equipment.

According to Leo, that machinery was used in geo-technical studies which determined the 40-acre trust parcel on the steep slope was stable enough to house a gambling casino.

"This issue has absolutely no substance," said Leo. "This was a legitimate activity and no damage was done to our property -- we have been, and will continue to be, good stewards of the land."

However, the three opposing organizations contend that the road crossed newly-acquired tribal properties near the Mark O. Hatfield State Park that were not protected by "sovereign" trust status so were not exempt from both state and federal laws.

"In Oregon and in the Scenic Area, a use that is discontinued for one year or more loses its legal status," said Vakos.

Bennett said because the logging road had long since ceased to be used for that purpose, access was no longer a vested right -- especially since the recent passage over it had been for an unrelated use.

In addition, she said Scenic Area land-use laws required a road to be serviceable at the time regular maintenance work was undertaken and a special permit was required for all other changes. Bennett said Terry Angle, tribal contractor, told staffers that the road had to be reconstructed because it was blocked by slides, rocks, logs, and a washout.

"All of these reasons lead me to conclude that the Warm Springs should have obtained a permit from your department before working on or using the skid road," said Bennett in a letter to Benedict dated Jan. 18.

Leo believes these charges have been levied in an attempt to build momentum against use of the site for a casino. However, he said tribal leaders plan to bring the proposed plan for a Hood River gaming operation before the 1,900 full voting members of the Warm Springs later this spring. If approval is given, he said the tribe will immediately set four years of planning in motion. Leo said the Warm Springs also plan to continue a "tasteful" building tradition and are making every attempt to alleviate "reasonable" concerns brought to them by citizens and local governmental bodies.

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