This story was originally published by Oregon Public Broadcasting.
In the latest fight over a proposed destination resort in Deschutes County, Oregon land use officials won’t consider the treaty rights of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs.
The Thornburgh resort site southwest of Redmond has riled opponents of its projected water consumption for decades, but a conflict decided by the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals last week marks the first challenge championed by tribal leaders.
Warm Springs officials have argued that Deschutes County approved the resort’s plans without considering how groundwater pumping to green golf courses, luxury homes and hotels could hurt fish populations protected through an 1855 treaty the tribes signed with the federal government.
But, LUBA wouldn’t consider that argument in its Jan. 12 decision, saying the tribes did not clearly raise treaty rights as an issue in earlier, county-level hearings.
The board also declined to weigh arguments that Thornburgh’s access to an on-site water supply is in jeopardy. Regulators have thus far refused to renew an expired water development permit, said Danielle Gonzalez, Policy Section Manager at the Oregon Water Resources Department.
LUBA, a body of lawyers appointed by the governor, is where local land use conflicts go for resolution before they can be challenged in court.
Warm Springs’ attorney, Josh Newton, said in an email that tribal leaders are still evaluating the recent opinion. If they decide to appeal, the case could head to the Oregon Supreme Court.
The tribes have argued Deschutes County’s latest decision on Thornburgh contained “implicit cultural bias” and showed a disregard for Indigenous knowledge.
“It is not our role to reweigh the evidence,” LUBA responded in its final opinion.
The resort’s developer plans to offset environmental impacts of wells pumping at the site primarily by buying water rights elsewhere and conserving them as groundwater or through stream flows. Kameron DeLashmutt said in a written statement his resort will be a net positive for fish protected by the treaty.
“In some cases we have been providing those benefits since 2013 when we first began to place water in-stream without pumping,” he said.
In recent years DeLashmutt scaled back the project’s projected water use by a third, largely by eliminating one of three golf courses allowed at the nearly 2,000-acre site.
The tribes were joined in their LUBA appeal by local residents Paul Lipscomb, Annunziata “Nunzie” Gould, Thomas Bishop and the nonprofit land use watchdog group, Central Oregon LandWatch. The board sided with Bishop and Lipscomb on two issues.
LUBA found the elimination of one golf course from the plans should have triggered the county to update its economic analysis of the project to show Thornburgh still benefits the local economy.
LUBA also advised county planners to show that Thornburgh’s portfolio of water rights are sufficient to protect fish and wildlife, said Carol Macbeth, staff attorney for LandWatch.
“We continue to fight to protect the fish and wildlife resources of the Deschutes basin,” Macbeth added.
Lead image: Public land surrounds the Thornburgh destination resort site in Central Oregon's Deschutes County, seen in the June 2022 file photo, as construction continued amid legal challenges to the project's water rights. Emily Cureton Cook / OPB