BIA backs proposed casino


The Bureau of Indian Affairs is ignoring local government opposition to a plan by the Spokane Tribe of Indians to build a casino near Fairchild Air Force Base, says a group trying to stop the project.

The BIA selected the tribe’s proposed West Plains casino and mixed-use development as its preferred alternative in a final environmental impact statement released this week.

The federal agency has yet to issue a final decision allowing the project to move forward, but the BIA’s choice is a significant development favoring the casino.

On Friday, Citizens Against Casino Expansion came out swinging at the environmental review, complaining that it fails to address concerns raised by Spokane’s mayor and City Council, the City of Cheney and the U.S. Air Force.

The group also denounced the BIA study for ignoring the position of the Spokane County commissioners, who came out against the casino plan on Tuesday. The environmental impact statement, however, is dated Jan. 25, four days before commissioners weighed in.

“Our community should be outraged that the Spokane Tribe and the Bureau of Indian Affairs have willfully ignored our concerns and the threats this development poses to our region and our economy,” Irv Zakheim, founder of the citizens group, said in a news release.

“They are trying to push this casino development down our throats,” Zakheim said.

Spokane Tribe Chairman Rudy Peone did not return a call seeking comment on Friday.

The proposed casino and resort, spanning nearly 1 million square feet, would compete with the Kalispel Tribe’s nearby Northern Quest Casino and Resort. It would be built on 145 acres of non-reservation trust land north of U.S. 2 and inside Airway Heights city limits.

The development, which also would include retail stores, a tribal cultural center and a police/fire station, would sit about 1.5 miles from the entrance to Fairchild, home to Air Force refueling tankers.

The BIA considered two scaled-down alternatives as well as the option of doing nothing. It concluded that the full project as proposed best meets its goal of promoting the economic development, self-sufficiency and strong self-governance of tribes. It’s the highest and best use of the property and will provide local communities with greater opportunities for employment and economic growth, the BIA said.

The agency is taking a final round of community response before it issues a final decision. The tribe also needs the approval of Gov. Jay Inslee. A spokesman for Inslee said Friday that the governor has not yet taken a position on the casino.

The Spokane Tribe also is asking the Department of Interior to exempt the project from a federal ban on tribal casinos being built off of reservation lands.

Critics have raised a host of objections to the proposal, including that its location along Fairchild flight paths might threaten the future of the base, the county’s largest single employer.

The BIA’s environmental review finds that the casino-resort, including its 145-foot hotel tower, would not encroach on Fairchild’s air space or impede base operations. That conclusion is based in part on recommended mitigation measures, including steps to avoid attracting wildlife and to limit light and glare that could cause air navigation hazards.

The casino and hotel would sit more than 4,400 feet north of the base’s Accident Potential Zone — an area with a higher level of accident risk that warrants land use and density restrictions, the BIA said.

Zakheim takes issue with how the document downplays the potential problems of such a large development near the busy Air Force base.

He referred to new land-use regulations adopted by Spokane County and the City of Spokane, and endorsed by the Air Force. The rules identify sensitive land uses and prohibited development around the base, including hotels, motels and public venues such as a casino.

“Those regulations have been ignored” in the BIA review, Zakheim said.

The City of Airway Heights, which annexed the proposed casino site last year, adopted similar land-use regulations in December, following recommendations from the U.S. Department of Defense for maintaining land buffers around the base for public safety.

The new regulations will not prohibit the Spokane Tribe’s proposed development, but tribal leaders have told Airway Heights officials the tribe will comply with encroachment protection and consult with the air base on development plans.

When the BIA issued a draft environmental review of the project last spring, the Kalispel Tribe complained that the document “contained almost no substantive analysis on the potential negative impacts their proposal could have on our tribe or the broader community.”

The Kalispel Tribe commissioned a third-party study that concluded the Spokane Tribe project “would devastate our tribe’s ability to provide services, such as health care and education, to our members.”

On Friday, Kalispel Tribe spokeswoman April Pierre said tribal leaders will review the final environmental impact statement to see how their concerns have been addressed.

Zakheim said his group remains concerned the proposed casino would invite more gaming on the West Plains and set a national precedent for tribes looking to expand casino operations to off-reservation sites.

“The most crucial thing we can do now as a community is urge our elected leaders at the federal level … to get involved and represent our community’s concerns to the BIA,” he said. “The time has come for them to get involved in this issue and stand up for our community. There is too much at stake and this is their last chance to speak out before the BIA issues its decision.”