Officially, Fairchild Air Force Base is neutral on the casino and resort the Spokane Tribe wants to build on the West Plains.
Unofficially, it’s putting up red flags about the proposed location of the planned 145-foot tower, raising the specter of a base jet crashing into the resort tower, a prospect so catastrophic it wouldn’t be worth the risk, however remote.
A cadre of local government and business officials insist the Air Force has grave concerns but can’t or won’t interfere in local, state or tribal politics. Casino backers argue that opponents are just unhappy with a federal report that says the base’s concerns have been addressed and now they must raise a new roadblock for the project.
The dueling messages add to the local debate on whether the planned resort, which would become the second casino complex in Airway Heights, should be welcomed as a boost to the region’s economy or rejected as an expansion of gambling and a threat to the long-term viability of Fairchild, the region’s largest employer.
The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs could sign off on the project next month, but final say will rest with Gov. Jay Inslee, who could block the needed gambling compact.
Neither the base nor officials at Air Mobility Command or the Pentagon cited the potential for a training mission crash into the planned casino tower as a concern during the year an environmental impact statement was prepared. Fairchild was a cooperating agency with the Bureau of Indian Affairs for the study, and the project’s final EIS, released in March, says the concerns the base did raise about lighting and noise have been addressed.
In that study, the bureau lists the preferred alternative for the tribal land as a shopping mall, casino and resort with a 145-foot tower. As a cooperating agency, Fairchild could have recommended other alternatives: development without the resort, development without the casino or no development on the land at all.
It didn’t, and has not yet voiced concern about the tower’s location in an extended comment period allowed before the agency issues its final “record of decision” on the project, sometime after May 1. After that, the decision on allowing gambling goes to Inslee.
Opponents of the project say base officials have told them about deep concerns about building the casino and resort tower so close to the base.
“I know the Air Force believes there’s a risk for a catastrophic event,” said Greg Bever, chairman of Forward Fairchild, a group of government, business and civic leaders dedicated to keeping the base open and enhancing its operations.
Supporters of the project say they’ve had conversations with base officials who said they had no concerns.
Bonnie Mager, a former county commissioner who was in office when the proposal first surfaced, said she talked to base officials at the time. They didn’t raise concerns about a possible closure or the base’s mission, although there were questions about additional noise complaints. In the impact statement, the tribe agreed to add noise-proofing to the buildings and not pursue noise complaints that arise.
“The tribe has done a very good job of wanting to be a good neighbor,” Mager said.
Who’s right? Despite repeated requests over more than a month, neither base officials nor the Air Mobility Command to which they report would answer questions on the record that could clear up this confusion. On March 23, they issued a carefully worded statement that says the Air Force has provided information to the BIA “to ensure their analysis addresses relevant issues accurately.” Among those issues are “compatibility with air traffic operations.”
“We appreciate the ongoing efforts by all parties to fully consider and adapt, while moving forward to meet the long term needs and interests of all key stakeholders,” Col. Brian Newberry, 92nd Air Refueling Wing commander, said in the statement.
This is not the first time the Spokane Tribe and the U.S. military have clashed over the land where the casino project would be built.
Before there was a town of Airway Heights, an air base or even a city of Spokane, the land was the site of the traditional encampment for the Spokane Tribe. While they regularly fished at the Spokane Falls a few miles east, the tribe routinely camped on the West Plains, where they dug camas roots and gathered berries.
The Battle of the West Plains, between the tribe and the cavalry under Col. George Wright, started there on Sept. 5, 1858. A stone monument across U.S. Highway 2 from Fairchild commemorates the battle, which the cavalry won.
The Indians retreated, with Wright’s cavalry following them into the Spokane Valley, where they slaughtered hundreds of the tribe’s horses. Later, Wright hanged a dozen or more Indian leaders at Latah Creek and declared the wars ended.
The site of the casino is miles from the tribe’s reservation north of the Spokane River in Stevens County, which has prompted some legislators to write Inslee warning about the spread of off-reservation gambling.
But Rudy Peone, chairman of the Spokane Tribe business council, said it is part of the tribe’s ancestral home, and not just in the sense that all of the continent could be considered some tribe’s ancestral home.
“We lived there,” Peone said.
The land where the tribe would build the casino and the 145-foot tower is not on the main flight path to the main runway where for decades bombers and tankers have landed and taken off at Fairchild. That runway brings planes in or out over a buffer with several building limitations. The affected area is called the Accident Potential Zone, known colloquially as “the crash zone.”
But the casino sits in the “racetrack,” a route used repeatedly for training flight crews and keeping them proficient through repeated landings and take-offs. The KC-135s are a familiar sight on the West Plains as they fly the oval-shaped route that banks after takeoff, flies out a few miles, turns and heads back to the runway.
The Air Force tracked a week’s worth of flights from Fairchild in October 2010 and created a map featured prominently in an anti-casino presentation a base official has made available in recent months to different local groups. Some call it the racetrack map; others, including Peone, call it “the spaghetti map” because the path for each flight is a yellow line superimposed on the brown-and-green ground. Tankers practicing visual flight landings fly over the area at altitudes between 550 and 850 feet above ground level, depending on whether they are landing or taking off. A red square in the middle of the descending turn for the practice landings shows where the proposed resort’s 145-foot tower would be.
The map is slide 6 in an eight-slide PowerPoint presentation, “Environmental Impact and Community Relationships,” prepared by Jeff Johnson, director of the Fairchild Encroachment Management Team, to discuss the project.
Should anyone miss the point on the connection between the map and the proposed casino, slide 7 spells it out: The Air Force position on the project is neutral, the first bullet point says. But there would be a “large concentration of people in proposed building,” the slide notes.
“Potential for Aircraft Crash/Mishap” is the last bullet point before Johnson opens the sessions up for discussion and questions.
The presentation features the Air Force’s winged-star insignia, as well as the shield of the 92nd Air Refueling Wing and its motto, “Duplum Incolumitatis,” or double security, on most pages.
Fairchild supplied a copy of the presentation slides to The Spokesman-Review but would not let Johnson or anyone else from the base comment on them. Inquiries were referred to the Air Mobility Command headquarters at Scott Air Force Base, which also declined to comment.
Fairchild did not submit the racetrack map in comments to be considered for the casino project’s final EIS. During the preparation of that report, Peone said, the tribe talked with base officials about the resort tower and lowered the height by one story, to 145 feet. During the preparation of the impact statement, the main concern the tribe heard from opponents in the community was that the project would encroach upon the base, making it a more likely candidate for closure at some future date if Congress decides to shut down some military installations to save money.
“We’re not experts on (Base Realignment and Closure) proceedings,” Peone said, so the tribe hired a consultant to study the possible effects. Recently, it asked the consultant to also look at concerns about the potential hazard of the tower in the racetrack.
Peone wonders if the shift to concerns about flights near the resort tower is just a new way to “create a political backlash against the project.”
Opponents recently circulated a rumor that the tribe was looking to trade the land it owns along Highway 2 for other land outside the flight patterns. Peone said he’s heard the rumor but there’s no truth to it. No one has proposed any land to swap, and such a deal would set the project back years while the new land is put into trust and a whole new EIS is drafted and finalized.
The racetrack map is in the final impact statement, in comments made by a local engineering firm and by Greater Spokane Incorporated, the regional chamber of commerce. GSI opposes the casino and has one of its key committees, Forward Fairchild, working to bring new air-refueling tankers to the base and keep Fairchild off any base closure list.
Fred Zitterkopf, former civilian head of the base’s civil engineering office and a member of Forward Fairchild, said officials at a base usually avoid saying yes or no to a local project, waiting for the community to work out any disputes. But the casino project is an unusual situation, he said, and when concerns about building the tower in the racetrack surfaced late in the EIS process, someone higher up the chain of command should have made a statement.
“It ought to have come from the Pentagon,” Zitterkopf said.