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Norton delays casino decision

Interior Secretary says she won’t rule on casino until property becomes trust

May 25, 2005

Opponents of a casino proposed for Cascade Locks are claiming victory with the U.S. Interior Department’s withholding of a decision on that plan.

However, involved local, state and federal officials claim that Secretary Gale Norton’s move is simply a “procedural shift.”

That her refusal to render a verdict at this time on the agreement between Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs does not set back the project timeline.

On Friday, Norton informed Kulongoski that she will not rule on his recommendation for the state’s first off-reservation casino until the 25-acre parcel in question has been taken into trust for gambling.

“While this decision comes as a bit of a last minute surprise, it is important to remember that it only changes the order of the process,” said U.S. Rep. Greg Walden in a written statement. “It does not reject the terms of the compact, but requires the tribes to acquire the land before the department will consider the merits of the compact.”

“If it means waiting a little longer to be sure that everything has been done right in this unique situation, then we’ll just have to be patient,” said Rep. Patti Smith, R-Corbett, who also advocates for placement of the casino in the largely willing community.

Norton was required by the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) to rule this weekend on the compact recommended by Kulongoski in April. However, she refused to either approve or deny that agreement for a 500,000 square foot casino in the industrial park because the timing was not right. Since IGRA requires gambling to take place only on trust lands, Norton believed she should not be asked to weigh in on the agreement until the status of the land had been converted. However, opponents plan to fight any change in the property designation to “sovereign nation” status.

Greg Leo, tribal spokesperson, said the application for trust has already been initiated and a mandated environmental impact study will soon be underway. He anticipates that Norton will be called upon to consider the trust request within the next year, as previously planned.

“She (Norton) didn’t say ‘no’ in this letter, she just said let’s get the land into trust first and we intend to do that,” said Leo.

But opponents are mounting a multi-pronged campaign to defeat plans for the $300 million facility at the eastern edge of the city. They believe the casino will bring social ills as well as pollution from increased traffic.

The Friends of the Columbia Gorge have joined with several environmental groups, Grande Ronde Tribe, Oregon Restaurant Association and the Oregon Family Council to form the Coalition for Oregon’s Future. The coalition is opposed to Kulongoski’s approval for an off-reservation casino in the Gorge or anywhere else in Oregon.

Cascade Locks No Casino has banded together with citizen activists against the Three Rivers Casino in Florence to fight on the legal front. Their joint attorney, Kelly Clark, contends the governor violates the Oregon State Constitution by negotiating gambling compacts at all. He further argues that Kulongoski cannot act alone in negotiating the terms of a tribal gambling compact — especially if it is for a banned activity. No Casino has posted a Web site, www.cl-no-casino.org, and is urging opponents to join their opposition group.

Meanwhile, Robert Willoughby, Cascade Locks city manager, hopes what doesn’t get lost in political battles is the “desperate” economic need behind the proposal. Both the Warm Springs and Cascade Locks communities have high unemployment and poverty rates — a key factor in Kulongoski’s decision. Oregon’s lead official also believed a special exception to the IGRA requirement that gambling be allowed only on reservation land was warranted to protect Gorge resources. In exchange for being allowed to build in the Cascade Locks urban area, the Warm Springs have agreed not to develop their eligible forested 40-are parcel just east of Hood River. Plus, the tribe will sign an additional 175 acres of Scenic Area timbered lands over to the state for preservation. Norton’s approval of the Cascade Locks site could also settle a legal dispute between the tribe and state over ownership of the historic highway leading to the Hood River lands. Under IGRA, Norton is allowed to grant an off-reservation casino to resolve that conflict, as well as for the tribes’ best interest — if the proposal is deemed not to be detrimental to the host community.

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