For 12,000 years or more, Columbia River tribes gathered along the banks near here to do business with distant tribes. Now they want to come back — not to cut deals in fish...

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CASCADE LOCKS, Ore. — For 12,000 years or more, Columbia River tribes gathered along the banks near here to do business with distant tribes.

Now they want to come back — not to cut deals in fish and baskets, as their ancestors did, but to deal blackjack and poker.

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The Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs want to close a small casino on their reservation in remote central Oregon and build one on nontribal land in this town on the banks of the Columbia, much closer to Portland, the state’s largest city, and the thousands of gamblers a casino would attract.

Cascade Locks officials see a casino as the last, best hope for this struggling town of 1,100.

But the Friends of the Columbia River Gorge, formed to protect the beauty of one of the nation’s first designated national scenic areas, cringes at the thought, predicting pollution, crowds and bad precedent.

It would be the closest of Oregon’s nine tribal casinos to Portland. All are on reservation land.

Gov. Ted Kulongoski has said he hopes to decide the matter before the Legislature convenes Jan. 10.

But Michael Lang, conservation director for the Gorge group, says it is not entirely Kulongoski’s call.

The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act says the governor and the U.S. interior secretary must agree that it is in the best interests of the tribe and surrounding community.

In 2002, Interior Secretary Gale Norton allowed an Indian casino on nontribal land in New York but wrote to Gov. George Pataki that she was worried it would set a precedent and let tribes put casinos wherever they wanted. Norton said she did not believe the regulatory act intended off-reservation gambling to be pervasive.

Lang’s group says the parking for the 500,000-square-foot casino would dwarf that of nearby Multnomah Falls, which was the state’s biggest tourist draw until another tribal casino hijacked that honor.

Putting a casino on nontribal land in the Gorge, he said, not only would defile “one of Oregon’s crown jewels,” but would break with policy and become, in effect, an arms race.

“What we would see is that every other tribe in Oregon would expect equal treatment,” he said. “Are we ready to break with policy and head off in a new direction and have casinos encircling urban areas in Oregon?”

He predicted traffic jams and added pollution where it already exists in varying degrees most of the time.

Bob Willoughby, the city administrator, says the issue for the town is survival.

“The natural-resources jobs are gone,” he said, citing drastic declines in the wood-products industry.

Gone too, he said, are the construction jobs that came with building Interstate 84 and a second powerhouse for Bonneville Dam, just downriver.

“We’re tourism-based now, and that base is the 100 days of summer,” he said. “In the 1950s we had 90 businesses here. We have about 19 now, and many of them are for sale.

“We had doctors, dentists, a bank,” he said. “Those things are gone.”

He said the town has maintained its peak 1950s and 1960s population levels only through annexations at a time when Oregon’s population is soaring.

“We’ve been slowly dying ever since,” he said.

“The Columbia Gorge isn’t going to notice this casino. But Cascade Locks certainly will. We need year-round tourism with a roof, something that’s windproof, rainproof, Gorge-proof.”

Tribal spokesman Len Bergstein described the proposed building site at Cascade Locks as “an ideal compromise.”

“It is in an industrial park where the community wants this development to occur,” he said, and where the law establishing the scenic area anticipated development, within specified areas inside the city limits.

Willoughby argues that many of the 3 million casino visitors projected each year would be people who come to the area anyway.

“The Gorge already has that many in a year,” Willoughby said.

“What it will change is that people will spend some time in Cascade Locks. That is not a bad thing. It’s a good thing.”

That doesn’t happen much these days. On a recent rainy afternoon, the streets were virtually empty. Tourists who drop off of the freeway to the river town spend an average of about $25, Willoughby said, about a fourth of the state average.

These days there is little beyond motels and a handful of restaurants to spend it on. “We don’t have enough cash registers,” he said.

“Something needs to happen before it just dies here,” agreed Tammy Walker, co-owner of the town’s hardware and liquor store.

“We’ve been hearing about this so long I don’t have a lot of faith,” she said. “It isn’t something I’m counting on.”

The tribes could build on land they own in nearby Hood River, but Bergstein said Hood River doesn’t want it and the tribes don’t want to build where they aren’t welcome.

Willoughby says Cascade Locks, with more than its share of vacant lots, plus surrounding communities, can provide for the estimated 1,000 employees the casino would bring.

Lang said only three of the nation’s 354 tribal-owned casinos are off Indian land.

At 660,000 acres, the Warm Springs reservation is Oregon’s largest. If the 60 percent unemployment on the reservation is the main concern, he said, the tribes should expand the smaller casino they already have on their reservation 50 miles to the south.

Spokesmen for the state’s top tourism draw — Spirit Mountain Casino in Grand Ronde, west of Salem — say they may also seek something closer to Portland if the Cascade Locks proposal goes through.

Oregon has a thriving state lottery that provides revenue in austere times, and tribal casinos give a share of earnings to community projects in lieu of taxes.

In the 1990s, as Oregon’s attorney general, Kulongoski cautioned against too much state reliance on gambling revenue, and warned of social side effects.

But with another expected budget shortfall, he recently asked lottery officials to introduce slot-machine-type line games to help fund the Oregon State Police.