Officials blast casino opponents’ arguments

Tension shows as federal bureau studies Cascade Locks casino

September 24, 2005

Hood River County officials believe that federal agents are being inundated with “false propoganda” to turn them against a proposed tribal gambling casino.

Four local government leaders have stepped forward after a series of public meetings on the issue to refute “double-sided” claims. They contend that technical studies required before a final decision can be rendered on the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs’ plan will finally reveal the truth. However, citizens across Oregon might be negative about the proposal by that time – which is exactly what they believe the opposition movement has planned.

“This needs to be a fair process that is based on the truth and the facts. The plan submitted by the Warm Springs tribes should be considered on its merits and allowed if any identified impacts can be mitigated,” said Chuck Daughtry, Cascade Locks port director.

Greg Leo, Warm Spings spokesman, has challenged a leading opposition group to open its financial records. He contends the fight being waged by Friends of the Columbia Gorge is funded by the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde to eliminate gaming competition.

For example, he said the Spirit Mountain Community Fund established by the Grand Ronde has given an undisclosed amount to Friends for a Lewis and Clark Landscapes project. But the Grand Ronde has also contributed $1 million to the Coalition for Oregon’s Future, of which Friends is a member, for an anti-casino campaign. Leo said that is especially ironic since Friends was the group which suggested either The Dalles or Cascade Locks as alternative sites to Hood River for the casino.

“There are some shadows in the background of these finances and we think it would fair to know where the money is coming from,” said Leo.

Michael Lang, Friends conservation director, said the organization will consider that demand – if the Warm Springs reveal how much their consultant is being paid to promote the casino.

“I’m relishing the irony here. We’ve been criticized by the tribes’ consultant for working with a tribe. That has to be one of the most hypocritical things I’ve ever heard,” said Lang.

Robert Willoughby, Cascade Locks city manager, noted another irony involving an argument by Friends. He said the group has publicly supported promoting the Gorge during the Lewis and Clark bicentennial, which could bring as many as 25 million tourists. However, Friends opposes three million people traveling to the casino each year.

Willoughby questions how conservationists can market the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area for outdoor recreation and then protest an indoor form of recreation. Especially, said Willoughby, if they are using arguments against the casino based on the potential for increased air pollution and traffic congestion.

“How do they plan to get people here – by horse?” he said. “It seems like they are talking out of both sides of their mouths.”

Hood River County Commission Chair Rodger Schock wants to know why Friends is not “respecting” the second purpose of the Scenic Area Act – to promote economic development within an urban area. He said the proposed gaming facility lies within the Cascade Locks city limits which is exempt from Scenic Area regulations. And the land is zoned for industrial use so it is not environmentally sensitive.

“I was a board member of Friends when the Scenic Act was written and I would like to know by what authority they now have to say that the Act they wrote no longer applies,” said Schock. “They should be ashamed of themselves. This fight should be waged in the open and based on truth.”

Lang denied on Thursday that any of Friends’ arguments against the casino were untrue. In fact, he leveled one of his own – which was strongly disputed by local officials.

“Cascade Locks is essentially giving away all of its industrial land base with this casino proposal and it’s questionable whether that is even consistent with state law,” said Lang.

His comment referenced Oregon’s Goal 9 planning rule that requires cities to maintain a 20-year reserve of industrial land to meet growth needs.

However, county Economic Development Director Bill Fashing said Cascade Locks has about 68 acres of public and private industrial lands for use even if a casino is built on 25 acres of the industrial park and another 35 is leased for a parking lot. He said without the $20 million freeway interchange promised by the tribe it is doubtful that much can be done with the 60 remaining acres of industrial and business properties in that same vicinity.

The at-grade railroad crossing has prevented firms from coming to town, said Fashing, because of safety concerns and traffic delays caused by passing trains. If the interchange goes in, he said the port’s land at the eastern end of the city will be more useable because an overpass can be constructed to get vehicles safely across the tracks.

“Even assuming the casino happens, there is still a significant amount of land available for industrial use in Cascade Locks,” said Fashing.

Willoughby said the whole issue is just another “red herring.” He said the small community, which boasts about 1,100 residents, currently has only attracted one new industry in the last 20 years. And, after about seven years in operation, Bear Mountain Forest Products uses only eight acres.

At the current rate of growth, he said it will be 40-50 years before Cascade Locks faces any kind of an industrial land shortage — even if the entire undeveloped portion of the industrial park is converted into other uses.

“They are telling us we can’t have economic development because we have to maintain a supply of land for economic development and that’s just plain silly,” said Willoughby.

Daughtry said another “misconception” being propogated by Friends is that the Cascade Locks casino will be Oregon’s first off-reservation gaming facility. In fact, Daughtry said there are seven casinos in the state that already fit that billing.

For example, he said the land under Spirit Mountain was not added to the tribes’ reservation until 1994, six years after the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) became law. And that property is not even part of the original reservation lands which were restored, according to Daughtry.

Under IGRA, a tribe cannot build a casino on land acquired after 1988 unless approved by the governor of the state and signed off by the Department of the Interior. Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski has approved the placement of the casino but federal process to gain concurrence from Interior Secretary Gale Norton has just gotten underway.

“How is the situation with the Grand Ronde really different than the Warm Springs proposal? By their own reasoning, Friends should be opposed to Spirit Mountain,” said Daughtry.

Lang said there is a difference between the Warm Springs seeking to construct an off-reservation casino and the Grand Ronde’s situation. He said there are only four casinos nationwide that have gained approval for an exception to the standard IGRA rule. He said another difference is that Spirit Mountain was turned over to the Grand Ronde through an act of Congress at the time that they regained federal recognition.

“The Warm Springs have used IGRA to find a great spot for their casino and that has never happened before in Oregon,” said Lang.

He said Friends would rather see a clean manufacturing plant in Cascade Locks than a 500,000 square foot casino/resort that will have more of an adverse impact on Gorge ecology. The Port, city, and county officials invited Friends to find that firm – because for long years there has been little new business interest in what Willoughby called the “dying” town.

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