Tribal Government & News

Tribal Council moves forward with Blue Heron Paper Mill site purchase

07.10.2019 Dean Rhodes Tribal Council, Economic development

By Dean Rhodes

Smoke Signals editor

The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde is another step closer to owning land near Willamette Falls for the first time in more than 160 years after 4-3 votes on Wednesday, July 10, that instructed the Lands Department to move forward with purchase and sale agreements on two properties that include the shuttered 23-acre Blue Heron Paper Mill site.

In addition, Tribal Council approved a more than $17 million supplemental budget for 2019 to fund the purchase of the two properties.

The properties include the Blue Heron site and approximately 1.5 miles of land that borders the site and Willamette River and features a potential boat dock. The two properties are owned by different people.

Tribal Council Vice Chair Chris Mercier and Tribal Council members Steve Bobb Sr. and Jack Giffen Jr. dissented. Tribal Council member Lisa Leno was absent.

Finance Officer Chris Leno said he received 26 written comments regarding the proposed purchases from the membership and they were all positive.

During the supplemental budget hearing, former Tribal Council Chairman Reyn Leno called the purchase “one of the worst decisions the Tribe will ever make.” He also asked why the Tribe is not investing the money in Grand Ronde for Elders, education and veterans.

Tribal Elder Les Houck also said he was “totally against” the purchase. “I don’t think it’s a blessing for the Tribe, but a curse,” he said.

Tribal Elder Maxine Rock, however, called the site “sacred” and said the Tribe needs to purchase the property.

Tribal Elder Debi Anderson said she supports the purchase, calling it a “marvelous” opportunity for the Tribe to open Willamette Falls to the public.

According to a four-page frequently asked questions sheet distributed before the Tribal Council meeting, “The Blue Heron property is a significant purchase that provides us with long-term investment opportunities while being a cultural site with significant cultural and historical connections for our Tribe and our Tribal community.

“An initial highest and best use analysis identified a mixed-use development, but the Tribe is in the process of doing a full highest and best use study for the site.”

Funds for the purchase will come from the Gaming Dividend Fund, which will be replenished with the future sale of the Multnomah Greyhound Park site in Wood Village. The Tribe purchased the Wood Village site for approximately $10 million in December 2015.

“The reinvestment of the Grand Ronde Tribe is a reinvestment into the environment. It’s a reinvestment into improving water quality, rebuilding lamprey populations and restoring habitat,” the frequently asked questions sheet stated.

Vice Chair Chris Mercier said he voted against the purchases because of “sticker shock” while other Tribal Council members, such as Kathleen George, Denise Harvey and Michael Langley, praised the long-term investment that they think will likely make money for the Tribe, as well as the cultural component of regaining ownership of the land.

Tribal Council approval occurred one week before the state Department of Environmental Quality will hold a July 17 public comment meeting in Oregon City regarding a Prospective Purchaser Agreement that would shield the Tribe from legal liability while it works to clean up any environmental damage found at the Blue Heron site, which has a long history of industrial usage.

In other action, Tribal Council:

  • Approved a resolution that supports the Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board to “identify area-wide functions currently performed by the Indian Health Service, or that are not being performed, that could and/or should be performed by the board on behalf of the Tribes and to negotiate within the scope of work and budget of the contract so identified”;
  • Approved a lease with Spirit Mountain Casino that will allow the casino to pave an almost one-acre piece of property that used to house the Tribal police station and use it for parking;
  • And approved the enrollment of 13 noninfants and six infants into the Tribe because they meet the requirements outlined in the Tribal Constitution and Enrollment Ordinance.

Also included in the July 10 Tribal Council packet was an authorization to proceed that increased the Tribe’s minimum wage to $11.25 per hour to match rates offered by the state of Oregon. The Tribal minimum wage will increase to $12 an hour on July 1, 2020; $12.75 an hour on July 1, 2021; and $13.50 an hour on July 1, 2022.

Acting Cultural Resources Department Manager Briece Edwards gave the cultural presentation to open the meeting about the Tribe’s historical connection to the Willamette Falls area and the archaeological findings that have been discovered at the Blue Heron site, including the original woolen mill foundation.

“Our people were the resident Tribes of the area,” Tribal Council Chairwoman Cheryle A. Kennedy said. “They were the safeguarders of the falls.”

The entire meeting can be viewed by visiting the Tribal government’s official website at and clicking on the News tab and then Video.