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Proposed scenic area casino splits tribes, Columbia River town

By Joseph B. Frazier
Cascade Locks, Oregon (AP) 3-08

A lawyer, doctor, bank and pharmacy are gone. The Gorge Gas and Mart is closed. The Gum Oak Restaurant, closed. Scenic Winds Motel, closed. Big D auto service, closed. An Internet facility, closed. Whisky Flats Mercantile, closed.

“In the 1960s we had about 60 licensed businesses,”’ said Charles Daughtry, port manager in this former timber town in the scenic Columbia River Gorge. “We now have about 12, and half of them are for sale.”

About 100 miles to the south, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs are having their own troubles. Reservation unemployment is about 26 percent. The tribal lumber mill is closing. The tribes are millions of dollar shy of what leaders say they need to provide basic services.

The Warm Springs tribes and many Cascade Locks residents also have this in common: They see building an Indian casino on the banks of the Columbia as their salvation.

It is an ironic twist in history. Cascade Locks sits on part of 10 million acres ceded by the Wasco and Warm Springs Indians to the U.S. government in 1855. In exchange, the tribes got government services, fishing rights and a 640,000-acre reservation, Oregon’s largest, that begins about 65 miles east of Portland.

And now, many here hope the Warm Springs tribes will be permitted to build an off-reservation casino on a sliver of the land they gave up.

But building the casino in this town of 1,100 is not a sure thing.

Environmentalists say it would blight the federally designated Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, an 85-mile strip of river where the town is located. Some residents have the same worry.

Leading the opposition are the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, which have a flourishing casino about 65 miles southwest of Portland and are worried that a Warm Springs casino in Cascade Locks would siphon off some of the lucrative Portland market.

At federal hearings that have just begun on the proposal, emotions have run high.

Cheryle Kennedy, tribal chairwoman of the Grand Ronde, pointed out the Warm Springs already have a casino on their reservation, and argued allowing another in Cascade Locks would violate Oregon’s long-held policy of one casino per tribe on tribal lands.

The Warm Springs tribes say they will close the small casino if they can build at Cascade Locks.

“We do not oppose the Warm Springs people,” she said, bringing hoots and groans from the overflow crowd at the hearing – Warm Springs tribal members and residents of Cascade Locks alike.

Three years ago, Gov. Ted Kulongoski and the Warm Springs tribes signed an agreement that would allow Oregon’s first off-reservation tribal casino.

The Warm Springs say revenues from the casino on their reservation are insufficent to help them out of poverty. They are hoping a casino in Cascade Locks would draw gamblers from Portland, which is just 45 minutes away.

Kennedy contended the Grand Ronde is an “affected tribe” with a stake in the decision.

Only three off-reservation casino applications have made it through the legal labyrinth since the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulation Act.

But the Warm Springs tribes, and Cascade Locks, have their hopes up. The off-reservation application for Cascade Locks is one of six the Interior Department recently allowed to proceed. Most of those rejected were judged to be too far from reservations to provide jobs for tribal members.

Cascade Locks isn’t far from the edge of the reservation but is about 100 miles each way from where most members live. Whether that fits the nearness guidelines is disputed.

Not everyone in Cascade Locks is in favor of the casino. Some fear the casino, the 250-room hotel and its several restaurants would run off the handful of businesses still here.

At the hearing, local Ray Cress said the casino could leave the town “little more than a frontage road. We only have one Yosemite, one Yellowstone, one Big Sur and one Columbia Gorge.”

Mayor Roger Freeborn doesn’t see it that way.

“This community is limping along where we are now. There might be negative impact, but we think the positive will far outweigh it. We’re comfortable to deal with that,” Freeborn said.

Cascade Locks was a boom town in the 1960s when Interstate 84 was being built, a new powerhouse was being added to nearby Bonneville Dam and the timber industry was thriving.

But when all that went away, Cascade Locks began to wilt.

There is no police department. The city buys 40 hours of coverage a week from the Hood River County sheriff’s office.

The school is struggling to stay open. Enrollment in the K-12 school system is at 138, below the number required to avoid having to close and bus its students to Hood River.

“We’ve had to fight to keep our school open,” said Freeborn, whose daughter is a member of a freshman class of six.

It may be some time before a decision is made on the casino.

Public hearings testimony on a draft environmental statement will be considered in a final impact statement, which will be followed by a comment period, after which the secretary of the Interior Department will decide. That could trigger a long court challenge.

Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne opposed off-reservation casinos when he governed Idaho but has allowed the six applications to advance. If the Democrats win the White House, he probably won’t be there.

Debora and Brad Lorang run an art gallery in Cascade Locks. They moved here to give their two children the small-town experience.

She said many of the surviving businesses have no employees and survive through sheer grit.

The Lorangs acknowledge that the casino, projected to draw on average 8,000 visitors a day to the town, could bring social baggage.

“But what do unemployment and despair bring?” asked Brad Lorang.