UPDATED 2/4: Scroll to the bottom of the post for updates
When the county commissioners were finally allowed to give their opinion the Spokane Tribe Economic Project’s proposed casino that would plot down a mile and a half from Fairchild Air Force Base, County Commissioner Todd Mielke went straight for a gaming metaphor.
“We are literally being asked to gamble the 5,000 current jobs provided by Fairchild on a project that may provide significantly fewer than that,” Commissioner Todd Mielke proclaimed.
But when looking at any gamble, it pays to take a glance at the odds. The big question the region is facing isn’t yet whether new jobs at the casino are worth closing Fairchild Air Force Base for. First, it’s whether that’s likely to ever happen.
For now, we’ll set aside all the other pro and con arguments — the societal impact of gambling, the loss or gain of tax revenue, the impact on the Kalispel and Spokane tribes — and focus on the central issue: Would the Spokane Tribe’s casino genuinely harm the chances of Fairchild Air Force Base staying open?
Greater Spokane Inc., the (current) board of Spokane County Commissioners, and the Mayor of Spokane say it’s a real danger, while the Spokane Tribe and the city of Airway Heights say not to worry. The Spokane City Council is split.
It’s the job of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, with the Department of Interior, to be neutral, and take into consideration all these comments, arguments and possibilities. Ultimately, the BIA and the Washington state governor are the only two groups left who need to give the tribe the OK to start construction.
Today, the BIA released their Final Environmental Impact Statement: Their verdict? Relax. Any problems with the casino can be mitigated.
Below we’ll run through BIA’s conclusion and briefly discuss other arguments. If there are any shocking developments in the future, we’ll add it to this post. Some of this gets a little technical, a little boring, and little long, but for those who care about Fairchild and the Spokane Tribe, it’s crucial reading.
How often do military bases close, anyway?
After the Cold War ended, and America’s vast military force began scaling back, big base closures have happened five times. The Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC) has nine commissioners who study which bases should be closed, and in 2005, they shut down 25 bases, and majorly tweaked 24 others. (Here’s an old Inlander article, worrying about Fairchild during this process.)
Recently, however, the recession has stopped that process. Republicans generally want to cut spending everywhere but the military, and Democrats, typically, believe that cutting spending in a recession just ends up making a recession worse. So this fiscal year, the Defense Department abandoned a push for base closures in the United States, instead focusing on base closures overseas.
(Yesterday, during Chuck Hagel’s confirmation hearing for Secretary of Defense, Hagel did keep open the possibility of base closures in the future.)
Right now, Spokane may have an advantage when it comes time for painful cuts. Spokane’s Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers is a higher ranking Republican in the Republican-controlled house. And Washington Sen. Patty Murray is actually the one leading the budget-writing in the Democrat-controlled Senate. It doesn’t mean that Spokane would be forever protected from a base closure — but it has some very powerful voices willing to defend it. County Commissioners predict economic devastation if Fairchild closes, but the BRAC committee takes into consideration precisely that economic impact when deciding which bases to close.
Meanwhile, several bases that have major developments closer than the Spokane Tribe’s casino are still open. An entire university, Pacific Lutheran, sits only a mile from Joint Base Lewis-McChord. MacDill Airforce Base’s flightlines are only a half-mile from Tampa, Florida. In the 2005 round of base closures and realignments, the military actually transferred additional units to those bases.
Rudy Peone, chairman of the Spokane Tribe, says the strongest argument against the question of encroachment is the fact that Fairchild has just been announced as candidate to house Boeing’s new KC-46A air refueling tankers.
“They’ve done that with full knowledge that the STEP [Casino] project is coming,” Peone says. “The U.S. Air Force has known the entire time, and they’ve still placed Fairchild on the short list.”
What does Fairchild itself think about the potential casino?
Officially, the Air Force has remained “neutral, with concerns.” On background, a spokesman with the base outlined four concerns:
1) Flights over the casino below 1,000 feet.
2) Light pollution.
3) Proximity to aircraft traffic patterns.
4) The amount of people concentrated in the building.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs’ EIS released today outlined ways those concerns will be addressed, and, over the next 30 days, the Air Force will decide if those mitigations would be enough. Fairchild, the BIA says, will not change its flight patterns if the casino is constructed.
Peone, meanwhile, says he’s sat down with groups at Fairchild, and flown down to D.C. to talk to the Pentagon. He wouldn’t get into specifics but did say “we’ve been addressing any concerns that they’ve mentioned.”
“They have not at any time told us there is an encroachment issue,” Peone says.
A guest editorial last March from Col. Paul Guemmer, the 92nd Air Refueling Wing Commander at the base, expressed concerns about encroachment as a general topic, but never specifically criticized the casino project.
Otherwise, statements have been contradictory. Spokane State Rep. Kevin Parker wrote to the BIA:
Unfortunately, the proposed development is in the flight path for approximately 800 training flights per month. In my conversations with leaders at Fairchild, the common thread I have heard is the proposed development undoubtedly will encroach on the current and future mission of Fairchild.
Greater Spokane Inc., quotes a number of former military officials with the same concerns. Yet former Commissioner Bonnie Mager has written that she talked to a former base commander, and heard a different story.
I find it highly presumptuous that a few people take it upon themselves to speak for the base. I did my due diligence and spoke to the commander to make sure there were no issues with the project before I entered into negotiations on the Tri-Party agreement. He told me, personally, Fairchild had no issues with the project.
How about that objective outsider?
Of course, no one can be truly objective. But the Bureau of Indian Affairs works with both the Kalispel Tribe (which ardently opposes the project) and the Spokane Tribe, which will develop it. They’re an outside agency, not paid for by any tribe.
The Spokesman-Review's initial article called it “Spokane Tribe’s draft environmental statement,” but in fact, it’s not a draft (it’s the final Environmental Impact Statement) and it’s not the Tribe’s.
“The Spokesman totally misrepresented it,” says Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart, who’s long supported the Casino. For him, the report is a vindication.
“This isn’t somebody’s opinion. This is the study. This is the word,” he says. “And the final EIS say there are no concerns that can’t be mitigated…. The concerns are based on opinions, but this is the facts. And these are the facts.”
The BIA received hundreds of comments, including comments from Commissioner Al French, Spokane Mayor David Condon, Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart, and Kalispel chairman Glen Nenema. Taking all those into account, the BIA basically says don’t worry.
Because all potential conflicts with AFB operations can be reduced to less than significant in accordance with regional planning documents and Department of Defense (DOD) recommendations, consideration of an off-site alternative to avoid land use conflicts is not warranted.
And it addresses repeated claims to the contrary, bluntly responding to letters of concern from commenters like Mayor David Condon:
… the Proposed Project would not impede Fairchild AFB operations or pose a threat of “encroachment” that would put safety, base operations, and military readiness at stake…
The Proposed Project would not place additional flight path restrictions or otherwise impact Fairchild AFB’s military value based on the evaluation criteria historically used by past BRAC committees to develop recommendations for base realignment and closure.
In fact, much of the impact in the BIA’s analysis discusses from how the base would affect the casino, rather than the other way around. The document considers the Air Force’s worries, and recommends ways to prevent any problems: Build the casino with materials that dampen noise and reduce glare to any aircraft, for example, and sign agreements with the Tribe protecting the base from liability.
The Spokane Tribe already passed a resolution agreeing to accept the noise and smoke and dust that comes from setting down a development next to an active air force base.
The Department of Defense refers to areas where there is a higher potential for crashes to happen as “accident potential zones.” But the Casino would be nearly a mile away from any of those zones, and the BIA considers scenarios predicting horrifying accidents due to planes colliding with the base as relatively unlikely. (Commissioner Mielke argues that the military needs to consider the training zone risky as well.)
The height of the building wouldn’t be an issue either: The FAA determined that the building would pose no significant change to flight patterns and no hazard to air navigation.
In 2009, Fairchild Air Force base and its surrounding community produced a “Joint Land Use Study” to protect the future missions of the base. The casino would land in one of the Military Impact Areas defined by in the study. But the JLUS outlines a bunch of ways to counteract problems that could arise. If the tribe and the base follow those procedures, there’s no problem. Here’s the EIS study again:
Compliance with the recommended strategies of the JLUS demonstrates that the Proposed Project would be consistent with development patterns that protect and preserve the utility and the operational effectiveness of Fairchild AFB. Therefore, the Proposed Project would not create a safety hazard to air navigation or otherwise impede base operations.
But that doesn’t mean the Commissioners are convinced.
“The timing of the BIA release on the EIS I think is very suspect,” Commissioner Mielke says. Since the outline of the County’s objection to the project was just released this week, he argues it doesn’t make sense that the BIA had time to consider the county’s objections.
“When I’ve sat across the table from the military, they say ‘every BRAC will assemble its own criteria. We will look at anything that impacts our ability to fulfill our mission at that base. Part of our mission is training,’” Mielke says. “The BIA as a federal agency is in no position to guarantee us this will not impact the future impact of Fairchild.”
Greater Spokane Inc., also remains skeptical.
But supporters like Stuckart believe the real reasons for ongoing resistance lay elsewhere. If encroachment were a real issue, he says, people would care more about the mobile home park in the crash zone.
“I think the Kalispel tribe has a lot of allies,” Stuckart says. “This has never been about encroachment on the base. This has always been about economic encroachment. I think the facts speak pretty clearly.”
Couldn’t the tribe just avoid this whole mess by moving their project somewhere else?
Maybe. But it would be a long difficult process.
Here’s Spokane tribal attorney Scott Wheat answering that question.
The Tribe's West Plains Property is already in trust, which is viewed by the federal government as a significant component of the merits of the Tribe's application. Additionally, the federal fee to trust process for off-reservation land acquisitions can take years to complete. Thus, by re-siting the project, the Tribe would run the risk of multi-year delays, which would translate into additional years of grinding poverty, high unemployment and inadequate governmental services for Tribal members.
But for them, the bigger issue is that the tribe’s position is that there isn’t any real danger to Fairchild, so why would they ever want to move it? “If the encroachment issue was real rather than fictive, I would expect the Tribe to seriously consider re-siting the project, because the Tribe has always been a major supporter of FAFB operations,” Wheat says.
UPDATE 2/4: We've obtained the PDF of a powerpoint given several times by Jeff Johnson, Director of the Fairchild Air Force Base Encroachment Management Team, outlining the concerns of Fairchild about the proposed casino development. It was completed before the BIA outlined their proposals for mitigating their concerns.