Tribe announces May 21 casino vote

The Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs will vote on May 21 about whether to move ahead with a proposed plan to build a casino in the Gorge.

Greg Leo, tribal spokesperson, said the tribal council decided it was appropriate to present the ballot measure on the same Primary Election day the other citizens of Oregon decided on key issues.

“It is a sacred responsibility to have the people vote before we go too far down any particular road,” said Leo.

The 2,190 registered tribal voters are being asked to decide whether a gambling facility should be built in the Gorge, although the location has been left open-ended.

The question posed on the ballot is, “Shall the Tribe be authorized to finance, construct and operate a gaming casino on Tribal trust lands in the Columbia River Gorge, on such terms as the Tribal Council shall determine; provided, that any borrowing shall be the obligation only of the casino enterprise and shall not risk any other Tribal assets?”

Leo said although the tribe has been very vocal about its preference to build the casino either on Government Rock or within the industrial park of Cascade Locks, it is prepared to house the operation on the 40-acre trust parcel just east of Hood River — with or without the inclusion of the adjacent 175 acres it purchased last year.

“We can build and operate a very successful casino on our trust site without the other properties if need be,” said Leo.

But No-Casino, a grassroots citizen group, has vowed to fight any plan to construct a casino on the steep slope above the Mark O. Hatfield state park which lies within the National Scenic Area. No-Casino believes the casino will severely damage the local economy and Hood River’s rich recreational, cultural and scenic heritage. To help in that battle, the organization has hired the Portland firm of Perkins Coie, which specializes in land-use law.

“No-Casino has taken a neutral stand on the Cascade Locks site although we believe at this point it is all speculation because it is not trust land and the tribe faces numerous hurdles to build there,” said Toni Vakos, outreach coordinator.

In 1999 Gov. John Kitzhaber vetoed the tribal proposal to place the casino on Government Rock, the island it purchased that same year, and has refused to weigh in on the industrial park location. In spite of mounting pressure from state and local officials, Kitzhaber remains firm that allowing an off-reservation casino would set a precedent for the other Oregon tribes.

The City of Hood River is contending that the tribe’s proposed use of the trust parcel east of Hood River is “illegal” because it does not meet the definition of “Indian Land” set out in the Indian Regulatory Gaming Act of 1988. Officials have given four examples of federal and state case law to show that the property doesn’t qualify for exemption from regulation because it is isolated from the existing reservation and the tribe has never exercised governmental power over it.

That argument has been presented to the Bureau of Indian Affairs along with the city’s request that an Environmental Impact Study be undertaken before the Secretary of the Interior makes a ruling on the tribal request to convert its newly acquired forest lands into trust so that these parcels can be used to support a gaming operation.

“We think that’s wishful thinking on their part, that chain of government control goes back to the 1920s and this reasoning is without merit,” said Leo.

This week Joe Moses, elected member of the Warm Springs tribal council, issued a strong statement about the “seriousness” of any threat to the protected rights of one of Oregon’s two treaty tribes.

“This is a matter of Native American sovereignty, we have a legitimate and lawful right to use our tribal land and we are going to defend it,” he said.

Leo questioned whether Hood River County was economically stable enough to fight against the addition of 1,000 permanent jobs that would pay an average annual wage of $31,500.

“If you want to put Hood River County residents to work you’ll approve the casino because these are great jobs,” said Leo.

This spring the Warm Springs hired the Portland firm of ECONorthwest to compile data showing the economic benefits of placing a casino in Hood River County. That study estimates that two million visitors a year would spend about $8 million in the retail and business sectors of the county for goods and services. In addition, about $28 million would be paid to the local workforce and fed back into area communities.

“We intend to feature Hood River Valley fruit in our restaurant and purchase as many of our supplies from local providers as we can,” said Leo.

In spite of moral protests that have been raised over the casino, Leo said state statistics show that residents of Hood River County gambled and lost about $6 million in the past year, both in the lottery and at both tribal and commercial casinos.

“There are a lot of people in Hood River County who enjoy social gaming and would willingly support a local casino so they didn’t have to drive out of town and spend their money somewhere else,” said Leo.

Meanwhile, until the vote later this month, Leo is transporting interested tribal members to the Gorge so that they can visit the Hood River trust parcel and the tribal fishing sites around Government Rock.

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