By Babette Herrmann -- Today correspondent
CASCADE LOCKS, Ore. - If the concept of a casino being able to meet green building standards seems like a misnomer, think again.
The Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs are confident that they will build an environmentally sustainable gaming enterprise in the heart of the Columbia River Gorge, about 105 miles from the reservation town of Warm Springs.
While the tribe awaits the BIA's decision on the draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) for the proposed 600,000-square-foot Bridge of the Gods Resort and Casino, the planning continues. The resort will sit on 25 acres within Cascade Locks industrial park, about 43 miles northeast of Portland.
If approved, next comes the final EIS; and if that passes muster, it goes for review by the assistant secretary for Indian affairs. Finally, the secretary of the Interior Department must approve the fee-to-trust purchase of the parcel and make sure the project falls in line with Section 20 of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988.
When Interior approves a fee-to-trust transfer, the government takes property into federal trust and grants the tribe exclusive rights to the land.
The Warm Springs submitted their 81-page response to the DEIS this past May. Organizations and individuals - both for and against the project - also submitted comments.
Warm Springs attorney Howie Arnett said the BIA's decision could take a few months to early 2009. During the process, the BIA must decide whether any of the comments against the project are substantive enough for the agency to further investigate.
Even if they are seamless in the process of meeting standards set up by local and federal governments and agencies, lawsuits from those opposing the project could cause further delay, Arnett said.
The Warm Springs had originally planned to build an on-reservation resort on a steep slope on the east side of the Hood River. But the project faced opposition from tribal membership, said Louie Pitt, a Warm Springs tribal member and director of governmental affairs and planning. Pitt added that the consequences to the environment and difficult terrain made the Cascade Locks location the favorable location. ''Tribal members directed us to build a building that we can be proud of,'' he said.
If ultimately approved, Bridge of the Gods would feature 90,000 square feet of gaming space. The remaining space would include a 241-room hotel, 26,000 square feet for convention and meeting rooms, a spa and fitness center, retail shops, a variety of restaurants, a day care center, and a cultural and interpretive center. Additionally, the tribe will lease another 35 acres from the Port of Cascade Locks for a parking lot, utilities and site drainage.
The Warm Springs plan to meet green building standards via Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design and Green Globe certification. Both certifications are stringent and require environmentally sound sustainability from the start of construction to finish, as well as in the day-to-day operations of the resort.
Early reports estimated the project to cost nearly $4 million, but Pitt said that number should start to climb as planning continues.
Meet the opposition
This venture for the Warm Springs has met its fair share of opposition, and these groups may resort to lawsuits as the project moves forward.
Twelve organizations, including the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde, have formed the umbrella organization, Coalition for Oregon's Future. The group's Web site features up-to-date news on the project and has created television ads against the Cascade Locks project and off-reservation casinos.
Justin Martin, Grand Ronde tribal member and spokesman, said the proposed casino would severely cut the revenue of the tribally owned Spirit Mountain Casino and cause job losses for both on- and off-reservation employees. Spirit Mountain is nearly a two-hour drive from Portland, compared to a 45-minute drive from Portland to the proposed resort in Cascade Locks.
In response to the DEIS, the Innovation Group, an economic firm hired by the tribe, said Spirit Mountain stands to lose 33 percent in revenue.
Martin said that the Grand Ronde primarily relies on gaming to generate revenue for tribal resources, services and programs for its more than 5,000 members. He explained that Warm Springs has numerous successful enterprises that generate revenue, and a slew of other interests on its 644,000-acre reservation.
The Grand Ronde is limited on what they can build on its 11,000-acre reservation of mostly dense forests, Martin said. The tribe lost federal recognition in 1954, regained it in 1983, and received land in 1988. ''We don't have other opportunities to generate revenues like some of the other large land-based tribes that weren't terminated.''
The Warm Springs was one of the tribes spared termination.
Martin explained that the Warm Springs and the Grand Ronde share cultural ties and fishing rights to the Cascade Locks area, and that the tribe is concerned about what kind of environmental impact the casino will have on the gorge.
So is Michael Lang, conservation director for Friends of the Columbia Gorge. To support infrastructure surrounding the resort, plans call for the de-watering of Herman Creek to expand Interstate 84. Lang said that the de-watering of Herman Creek would harm salmon populations in this tributary of the Columbia River.
''They are actually destroying salmon habitat to build a casino,'' he said.
He said that storm water runoff from the parking lot could also compromise salmon and water integrity, and be a visual blight for visitors flocking to the area for recreation.
Arnett said that the tribe and developers would do everything possible to mitigate the impact on salmon in the Columbia River and surrounding tributaries. He also said the tribe would make changes to the de-watering project to meet Environmental Protection Agency and BIA guidelines.
''There is no way that the tribe would go forward with a project harmful to salmon,'' he said.
Per green building requirements, Len Bergstein, a consultant for Warm Springs, said the tribe must utilize carbon offsetting, a form of giving back to the environment to offset any pollution created by the project. Once construction starts, he said the tribe plans to engage in an offsetting project, possibly by planting trees.
Both Lang and Martin emphasized that the project is too far from the reservation to benefit tribal members with jobs. And tribal members will lose their jobs once the Warm Springs closes Kah-Nee-Ta. (Per an agreement with the state, the Warm Springs must close its doors on the existing casino when they open Bridge of the Gods.)
Pitt said the planning committee made no promises of employment to its tribal members, but would likely provide a shuttle bus for those choosing to work at the new resort. They plan to hire about 1,700 employees.
Greenbacks for Oregon
Gov. Ted Kulongoski made the deal with the Warm Springs to build the state's first and largest Indian casino off reservation lands in April 2005.
Bergstein estimates that Warms Springs will funnel about $750 million to the state within the first 25 years of being in business. Regardless of the amount, the tribe promises to pass on 17 percent of its revenue to the state. About 95 percent of those funds would go toward college scholarships for Oregon residents and the remaining 5 percent would be earmarked for environmental and economic development projects.
To learn more about the DEIS and to read comments, visit www.gorgecasinoeis.com.