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Casino projects await Interior decision

PORTLAND, Ore. – Both the Cowlitz Tribe and Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs are inching one step closer to a final decision from the U.S. Department of Interior on their land into trust applications, which if approved, would allow each tribe to build a casino close to Portland, Ore.

The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde could face a dramatic dip in revenue at their Spirit Mountain Casino, located 75 miles southwest of Portland, and adamantly oppose the projects. Proponents say the revenue generated from the casinos will stimulate the economy and create thousands of jobs.

In 2008, the Innovation Group, an economic firm hired by the Grand Ronde, said Spirit Mountain stands to lose 33 percent in revenue from the Warm Springs project alone. A 2007 analysis by E.D. Hovee & Co., a Vancouver, Wash. consultant, estimated that the tribe could lose $17 million a year from a Cowlitz casino.

The Cowlitz Tribe awaits approval on the 152-acre reservation and proposed $510 million casino, located near La Center, Wash., about 16 miles north of Portland. They are partnering with the Mohegan Tribe of Connecticut to develop and manage the casino.

The currently landless tribe gained federal recognition in 2002.

Cowlitz Vice Chairman Phil Harju said the cost and size of the project is subject to change, depending on the market and availability of loans. “It’s not what the opposition is saying, that we’re going to have the biggest casino in the world.”

The Warm Springs are one step behind Cowlitz, and are waiting for the Interior to release the Final Environmental Impact Statement, said Louis Pitt, Warm Springs director of government affairs and planning. From there, they must address the Interior’s concerns, if any, before their application moves forward for final approval.

Pitt estimates the casino project, to be built on a 25-acre parcel in Cascade Locks, will cost $500 million. It’s located in the heart of the Columbia River Gorge, about 45 miles east of Portland. The Kah-Nee-Ta Resort & Casino in Warm Springs, about 100 miles from Cascade Locks, must close its doors if the Interior gives the stamp of approval.

As a staunch opponent, Grand Ronde has funded television ads and nonprofit groups to garner public support.

Friends of the Columbia Gorge, a nonprofit conservation group opposed to the Warm Springs project, received a donation in the $50,000 – $100,000 range from the Grand Ronde’s Spirit Mountain Community Fund, according to their 2007/2008 donor list. Media reports estimate the tribe spent nearly $1 million on TV ads opposing off-reservation casinos, especially during the height of Gov. Ted Kulongoski’s bid for re-election.

The tribe criticizes Kulongoski for agreeing to sign a gaming compact with Warm Springs if the Interior approves its application. Siobhan Taylor, Grand Ronde’s public affairs director, said this violates the gaming compact tribes signed with the state, which limits tribes to one casino per reservation.

“The governor is trying to make an exception for one tribe in Oregon.”

Chairman Sue Shaffer, of the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians, agrees with the one casino per reservation policy. She said the law was intended to generate revenue and jobs for tribal members living on reservations. “We need to try to strengthen our own tribal people and economies.”

Shaffer said allowing one tribe an off-reservation casino could set a precedence and prompt other tribes to vie for an off-reservation casino on their ceded territory, which includes the heart of major cities.

The tribe owns and operates the Seven Feathers Hotel & Casino Resort, about 200 miles south of Portland in the town of Canyonville, Ore.

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Kelly Skye, general counsel to Kulongoski, approves of this “unique situation,” as the Warm Springs alternate Hood River parcel, located on a heavily forested and steep incline near the river, faces both tribal and community opposition.

She added that Kah-Nee-Ta has failed to support the tribe, making Cascade Locks the most viable location.

“There’s nothing about this that sets a precedent or opens the door for other tribes to build anywhere they like,” she said.

Rob Greene, tribal attorney for the Grand Ronde, said the Warm Springs project goes beyond money. The tribe, he said, possesses ancestral ties to Cascade Locks and that Chief Tumulth and his Walala people fished and lived in the area. The Walala were forced off their lands and onto the Grand Ronde reservation, he added.

It’s a notion that doesn’t sit well with Warm Springs.

Pitt said the Treaty with the Tribes of Middle Oregon, 1855 clearly states that the Warm Springs ceded the area known as Cascade Locks to the United States. “The facts are pretty clear that this is our place.”

Howie Arnett, Warm Springs attorney, said the Indian Claims Commission reviewed the 1855 treaty boundaries in the 1960s when the tribe sued the federal government for loss of territory. “It puts the entire city of Cascade Locks and the casino site clearly within the Warm Springs Indian Claims Commission judgment area, and it’s not just our interpretation of the rules.”

As for Greene’s views on the Cowlitz, he said the tribe lacks ancestral ties to the area and simply want to cash in on the Portland market.

He said their ancestral lands are about 50 miles north.

Harju, also the tribe’s attorney, was hesitant to comment on the matter, but said the property was on their ancestral lands.

“We are seeking land in our historic area and want to seek economic benefits for our own people. I don’t think it’s appropriate that they try to stop other federally recognized tribes for doing the same thing.”

A source that wished to go unnamed, but considered an expert on Northwest Indian treaties, said the tribe lived along the Cowlitz and Lewis rivers, and Cowlitz Chief Umtux had died in the 1800s near the proposed reservation site.

Meanwhile, Harju said the Carcieri v. Salazar case has likely stalled the Interior’s decision. It limits the land into trust process to tribes that were recognized by the federal government in 1934, when the Indian Reorganization Act was passed. “We are fairly confident even though we weren’t federally recognized until 2002, we were still under the jurisdiction of the federal government in 1934,” he said.

If the Interior approves their application, it opens the door to the Grand Ronde and card rooms in the area to file appeals, which will further delay the process.

According to Native American Legal Update, the Interior is considering whether to reverse the Bush administration policy that limits tribes from developing off-reservation casinos, which are not “within a reasonable commuting distance of the reservation.”

This reversal could prove favorable to the Warm Springs, as the northwestern border to the reservation is about 69 miles from Cascade Locks.