Tribes, Environmentalists Clash over Proposed Casino in Columbia River Gorge

For 12,000 years or more, Columbia River tribes gathered nearby to do business with distant tribes. Now they want to come back -- to deal blackjack and poker.

CASCADE LOCKS, Ore. — For 12,000 years or more, Columbia River tribes gathered nearby to do business with distant tribes. Now they want to come back -- to deal blackjack and poker.

The Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs want to close a small casino on their reservation in remote central Oregon and build one on nontribal land in Cascade Locks, much closer to Portland and its thousands of potential gamblers.

Officials in this struggling town of 1,100 see the venture as its last, best hope to bring back people and tourist dollars.

But the Friends of the Columbia River Gorge, formed to protect the beauty of one of the nation's first designated national scenic areas, pales at the thought, predicting pollution, crowds and bad precedent.

Gov. Ted Kulongoski has said he hopes to decide the matter before the Legislature convenes Jan. 10.


But Michael Lang of Friends of the Columbia River Gorge says it's not entirely Kulongoski's call. The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act says the governor and the U.S. interior secretary must agree that it is in the best interests of the tribe and surrounding community.

If the casino is built in Cascade Locks, it would be the closest of Oregon's nine tribal casinos to Portland, which is about 40 miles to the west. All are on reservation land.

Of the nation's 354 tribal-owned casinos, only three are off Indian land.

Lang said putting a 500,000-square-foot casino on nontribal land in the gorge would not only would defile "one of Oregon's crown jewels," but would break with policy and become, in effect, an arms race.

"What we would see is that every other tribe in Oregon would expect equal treatment," he said. "Are we ready to break with policy and head off in a new direction and have casinos encircling urban areas in Oregon?"

If the 60 percent unemployment on the reservation is the main concern, he said, the tribes should expand the smaller casino they already have on their reservation 50 miles to the south.

City administrator Bob Willoughby says the casino is key to the town's survival. The town has maintained its peak 1950s and 1960s population levels only through annexations at a time when Oregon's population is soaring, he said.

Willoughby also cited declines in the wood products industry and construction jobs that came with building Interstate 84 and a second powerhouse for the Bonneville Dam downriver.

On a recent rainy afternoon the streets were virtually empty.

"We're tourism-based now, and that base is the 100 days of summer," he said. "In the 1950s we had 90 businesses here. We have about 19 now, and many of them are for sale.

Willoughby said the National Scenic Act, which established the Gorge protected area, envisioned economic development in places such as Cascade Locks. He also said many of the 3 million casino visitors projected each year will not be new.

"The Columbia Gorge isn't going to notice this casino. But Cascade Locks certainly will. We need year-round tourism with a roof, something that's windproof, rainproof, gorgeproof."

The difference is that people will spend time there, he said. Tourists who drop off of the freeway currently spend an average of about $25, about a fourth of the state average.

Tribal officials say they want to build a casino closer to Portland -- the state's largest city -- to increase revenue. Spokesman Len Bergstein described the proposed building site as "an ideal compromise."

"It is in an industrial park where the community wants this development to occur," he said.

The tribes could build on land they own in nearby Hood River, but Bergstein said Hood River doesn't want it and that the tribes don't want to build where they aren't welcome.

Oregon has a thriving state lottery that provides needed revenue in austere times and tribal casinos give a share of earnings to community projects in lieu of taxes.

In the 1990s, as Oregon's attorney general, Kulongoski cautioned against too much state reliance on gambling revenue and warned of social side effects. But with another expected budget shortfall, he recently asked lottery officials to introduce slot machine-type line games to help fund the state police.

Source: Associated Press