Washington (AP) — The federal government has agreed to hold five more public hearings on a proposal by an Oregon tribe to build a Las Vegas-style casino in the Columbia River Gorge.
Four hearings will be held in Oregon – in Troutdale, Cascade Locks, Warm Springs and Hood River – and one in Stevenson, Wash., officials said. Dates and times have not been set, but officials said they are expected in a few months.
The announcement from the Interior Department keeps alive the longstanding proposal by the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs to build a casino complex in Cascade Locks, about 40 miles east of Portland.
Supporters cheered the news, which comes as federal officials have rejected nearly two dozen proposals for off-reservation casinos – including three in Washington state and one other in Oregon.
„All we were asking for is a hearing on the merits of the case,“ said Chuck Daughtry, general manager of the Port of Cascade Locks, a primary supporter of the project. „It’s a big step.“
In rejecting 22 of 30 off-reservation proposals, the Interior Department said for the first time it will study commute times as it considers whether to approve new off-reservation casinos.
As distance from the tribe’s reservation increases, greater scrutiny will be given to benefits of the planned casino, said Carl Artman, assistant secretary for Indian affairs.
Officials also will give greater weight to concerns raised by state and local governments, Artman said in a Jan. 3 memo widely considered as a tightening of federal guidelines for off-reservation casinos.
The day after Artman’s memo, the Interior Department rejected plans for 22 off-reservation casinos across the country.
Fourteen were on land that is at least 100 miles from the reservation where tribal members live, with some as far away as 1,000 miles, said Shane Wolfe, a spokesman for the Interior Department.
Among tribes that were rejected were the Muckleshoot, Colville Confederated Tribes and the Lower Elwha in Washington state, and the Burns Paiute Tribe in Oregon. The Interior Department said applications by the four Northwest tribes were incomplete.
Rollin Fatland, a spokesman for the Muckleshoot, said the tribe had no active plans to develop a casino on land it owns that now is the site of the Emerald Downs racetrack in Auburn, Wash.
The tribe submitted a land-in-trust application to meet an April 2006 deadline set by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who was then chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, Fatland said.
„The tribe submitted an application to preserve its options,“ Fatland said.
The Colville proposal called for three allotments of land in Wenatchee, Wash., while the Lower Elwha plan included 16 acres in Port Angeles, Wash.
The Burns Paiute proposal called for a 42-acre site in Ontario, Ore.
Opponents of the Warm Springs proposal, which include the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, say the new federal guidelines dim chances for the Cascade Locks casino.
„It’s a 230-mile round trip“ between Warm Springs, where many tribal members live, and Cascade Locks, said Dan Lavey, spokesman for an opposition group called Coalition for Oregon’s Future. „That’s not exactly a practical commute.“
Distance is a major factor in whether to approve an off-reservation casino, according to the new guidelines.
If a casino „is not within a commutable distance of the reservation“ many tribal members would either not be able to get a job there or would be forced to move off the reservation to work there, Artman wrote. „In either case, the negative impacts on reservation life could be considerable,“ he said.
Len Bergstein, a Portland lobbyist and spokesman for the Warm Springs tribes on casino issues, downplayed the commuting problem. The actual distance between the reservation border in central Oregon and Cascade Locks is less than 40 miles, Bergstein said. Tribal members commute much farther than that for jobs and school, he said.
„We’ve never been concerned about that as something that would disqualify us,“ he told The Oregonian newspaper.
Supporters say the proposed casino resort would create hundreds of jobs and pump much-needed money into the Cascade Locks economy. Opponents say it would degrade the gorge’s environment and increase traffic along heavily traveled Interstate 84.
Once the hearings are completed, the proposal heads to Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne for approval. As Idaho governor, Kempthorne generally opposed off-reservation casinos.