After months of inaction, the federal government has finally agreed to a round of public hearings on the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs' Cascade Locks casino proposal.
"What it means is the project is still alive," said Louis Pitt, director of government affairs and planning for the tribes.
Pitt was pleasantly surprised to hear that the draft environmental impact statement would be signed so the proposal could move to the public input stage. "We spent the morning trying to confirm that," he said on Friday.
The tribes' plans for a $389 million destination resort and casino in the Columbia River Gorge -- to be located on a 60-acre site in the Port of Cascade Locks industrial site -- have been in limbo for more than a year, awaiting action from the U.S. Department of Interior.
The Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs aren't the only ones waiting for word on their casino proposal. With pressure mounting from both proponents and opponents of casinos across the country, the Department of Interior this month rejected 22 of 30 applications for off-reservation casinos.
At the same time, the department indicated that it was tightening restrictions for off-reservation casinos and giving more credence to concerns expressed by local and state government.
The casino's distance from the reservation or ancestral land would also be taken into account, since casinos are expected to provide employment for tribal members.
Cascade Locks was part of the 10 million acres tribes ceded to the U.S. Government in the Treaty of 1855.
"It's our tribal home. We never left," said Pitt, noting that the tribal members live and work in the area, and have always retained fishing rights on the Columbia River.
Disputing claims by opponents that it's a 230-mile round trip from Warm Springs to Cascade Locks, Pitt said, "As a straight line, it's 37 miles from the corner of the reservation straight over to Cascade Locks. It's 69 miles to the reservation, over Highway 35, through Hood River (from Cascade Locks)."
Because of cutbacks in tribal government, there are currently fewer jobs on the reservation. That means "either look around here, or go off the reservation," he said.
Calling it a "reasonable commuting distance," Pitt said, "On the east side, we're sort of into this traveling to get things done."
The proposed Bridge of the Gods Columbia River Resort Casino would be the largest casino in Oregon, employing about 1,200 people.
"We need that for our Indian way of life -- for services for our youth, our elders, public safety, and services," he said. "We're running into hard times because of depleting of natural resources, and business ventures with water and the dam aren't going to mature for 20 years."
The Cascade Locks community has eagerly pursued the project for its industrial site for at least the past four years. Three years ago, in a compact between the tribes and the state of Oregon signed in April of 2005, Gov. Ted Kulongoski agreed to allow the casino to be sited at Cascade Locks.
"They really need it, and we need it," said Pitt. "It adheres to the three rules of successful business: location, location, location."
Once the draft EIS is published in the Federal Register -- possibly in the next couple of weeks -- the public hearings can be scheduled, he said.
The first of five hearings will be held on the Warm Springs Reservation, probably in mid-March, Pitt said. Others in Cascade Locks, Hood River, Troutdale, and Stevenson, Wash., will follow.