Warm Springs Tribe eyes Highway 26 for casino

Council view location as temporary; Cascade Locks still goal for new facility




Faced with new obstacles to its plan for a casino in the heart of the Columbia River Gorge, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs revealed a backup plan Thursday:

The tribal council will close its existing casino, at Kah-Nee-Ta Resort in a remote corner of its Oregon reservation, and build a temporary gaming establishment at Warm Springs on heavily trafficked U.S. Highway 26, which runs through the reservation and connects Portland with Central Oregon.

The tribe’s hopes for quick federal and state approval of a casino in Cascade Locks, Ore. were dashed in January when U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced that he was putting off all decisions on acquiring land in trust for tribal casinos until at least this spring.

Time ran out when Democratic former Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber took office in January for a third term as governor. Kitzhaber, an avowed opponent of off-reservation Indian casinos, campaigned last year against a casino in the Gorge, telling a meeting of newspaper publishers in July, “I am opposed to it, period.”

His predecessor, Democratic Gov. Ted Kulongoski, had signed a compact with the tribe in which tribal leaders agreed to share gaming revenue with the public, set up an $850 million scholarship fund, and preserve property it owns near Hood River for public use in exchange for Kulongoski’s approval of the Cascade Locks site.

The tribe could build a casino on the steep, narrow Hood River property without permission from the state or the federal government. But public opposition to a casino on the highly visible site prompted the tribe to select a site in a Cascade Locks industrial park instead.

Economically struggling Cascade Locks welcomed the prospect of the estimated 2,000 jobs a large casino complex would bring. Opponents, including the environmental group Friends of the Columbia Gorge and the Grand Ronde Tribe, formed a coalition to fight the project. The Grand Ronde, which operates Spirit Mountain, the closest tribal casino to the Portland metro area, also opposes the proposed Cowlitz Tribe casino near La Center.

Len Bergstein, Portland consultant for the Warm Springs tribe, said Thursday that the Hood River site is “absolutely” still on the table.

“Through referendum, the tribal members have directed the tribal council to seek a casino in the Gorge.”

‘Number of benefits’

Jody Calica, secretary-treasurer of the Warm Springs Tribal Council, said in a statement Thursday that the decision to build a temporary casino across the highway from its Warm Springs Museum is “designed to provide a needed surge in short-term revenues, and assist in pursuing the goal of a permanent casino at Cascade Locks.”

But he stressed that the relocation would not solve the tribe’s “long-term dire financial needs.”

“Moving our existing casino from Kah-Nee-Ta to a temporary location on Highway 26 provides a number of benefits,” he said. “First and foremost, it’s a needed, short-term financial shot in the arm for tribal revenues. Next, moving the casino closer to our largest population center assures that over this temporary period, jobs for tribal members will be retained. And third, we can use some of the additional revenues generated at this highly visible, accessible Highway 26 casino location to fund our continued diligent efforts to obtain final approval from the Interior Department for the permanent Warm Springs casino location at Cascade Locks.”

“We’re still fully committed to the Cascade Locks site,” Bergstein said. “We still believe it will be approved by the secretary of the Interior.”

Bergstein noted that Bureau of Indian Affairs has approved the tribe’s environmental impact statement, which concluded that the Cascade Locks site is the preferred location for a casino capable of providing for the tribe’s economic survival. He also contended that the compact the tribe negotiated with Kulongoski is “a binding set of legal obligations between the state and the tribe.”

Not so, said Michael Lang, conservation director for Friends of the Columbia Gorge.

“It has no force and effect, and it’s not binding,” Lang said. “This governor retains the discretion to undo that compact. We do not believe the secretary of Interior will approve the casino project and we are quite certain that Gov. Kitzhaber will exercise his veto authority.”

Lang added that he sees the tribe’s decision to build a temporary casino on its reservation as “a step in the right direction.”

“We’ve long said they should build a casino on Highway 26,” he said. “It would protect the Gorge and keep large casino sites out of the Gorge. It would increase revenue for the tribe, and it would provide more jobs for tribal members. Those benefits are clear.”