Proposal a starting point for Mt. Hood protection

December 3, 2005

U.S. Reps. Greg Walden and Earl Blumenauer have come up with a plan to blend resource protection on Mount Hood with recreational interests and economic opportunities.

Although their proposal is not drawing rave reviews from the conservation community, it is largely accepted as a “starting point” for greater forest preservation.

Walden, R-Ore., and Blumenauer, D-Ore., want to expand the existing Wilderness areas by 75,000 acres, a 40 percent increase. They also propose adding 15 more miles to the Wild and Scenic Rivers network. And keeping 3,400 miles of primitive roadways open for mountain biking, horseback riding, hiking and other uses.

“We want to thank them for what they have done, it’s a good start and we want them to know that we appreciate that effort,” said Erik Fernandez, wilderness coordinator from the Oregon Natural Resources Council (ONRC).

Walden said the framework for future legislation was crafted following dozens of meetings between himself, Blumenauer, other Oregon delegates, and comment from hundreds of their respective constituents.

“I think this set of proposals reflect that work. But we want to come out one more time to talk with the public and ask them to tell us what they like and don’t like,” he said.

Fernandez plans to inform the two federal officials about “other amazing places” that should be designated as Wilderness.

For example, the ONRC, which has identified 261,000 acres of wilderness-quality land on Mount Hood and in the Gorge, wants at least three other key areas protected. Fernandez said any legislation should also include old-growth forests around Boulder Lake, the wildlife migration corridor of Bonney Butte, and bio-diverse woodland along Fifteenmile Creek.

The ONRC believes that U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden’s former proposal to add 177,000 acres of Wilderness was more widely approved by conservationists.

“We think there’s more common ground to be found than they’ve (Walden and Blumenauer) proposed,” said Fernandez.

Walden said a multi-tiered plan was complex to develop since there are so many interest groups with ties to Mount Hood. He said about four million people visit the national forest each year and the slopes in Oregon are the second most climbed in the world, ranking just behind Japan’s Mount Fujiyama.

“We want to minimize use conflicts while expanding opportunities for people to enjoy their chosen activities,” he said. “This has been a very public process and a very open process. Earl and I believe this proposal reflects the concerns that we’ve heard and the positive suggestions that we’ve received.”

The Hood River Valley Residents Committee (HRVRC) agrees with ONRC that future legislation should incorporate more wilderness acreage. Fernandez said Oregon has only preserved 3.7 percent of its available Wilderness, compared to 10 percent in Washington and 13 percent in California.

“The HRVRC strongly supports the protection of as many special places as possible on the Mount Hood National Forest through Wilderness designation,” said Mike McCarthy, a board member.

Walden and Blumenauer would like the following areas – not used for timber harvest – to be incorporated into the Wilderness inventory:

Bull of the Woods additions, Big Bottom, Gorge ridgeline, Mazama/Top Spur, Elk Cove, Sandy area, Roaring River, and Salmon-Huckleberry additions, including Eagle and Alder creeks.

The Wild and Scenic River increases would include the Middle Fork of the Hood River, the upper reach of Zigzag River and portions of Eagle Creek.

The HRVRC and Mt. Hood Meadows Ski Resort appear to have gained Walden and Blumenauer’s cautious support for a compromise plan to protect the Crystal Springs watershed zone of contribution.

After months of mediation, Meadows has agreed with the HRVRC request that it not further develop its Cooper Spur Mountain Resort holdings. In exchange, HRVRC will not oppose Meadow’s plan to build condominiums on land near Government Camp that has already been zoned for that purpose.

However, the deal requires an exchange of property with the U.S. Forest Service that has to undergo a public hearing process. Walden said it is important to explore all aspects of that plan before any final decision is made. He does concur that development on the mountain should take place where development already exists if at all possible. And, if the land exchange is approved, he would like the Cooper Spur area also given a Wilderness classification.

“We believe there is real merit in the settlement agreement reached between Meadows and the HRVRC. We also believe the public should have an opportunity to comment on that proposal and that hasn’t occurred yet,” said Walden.

He said the protection of water quality on Mount Hood was also a key element of the conceptual plan that he crafted with Blumenauer. They are suggesting that an advisory committee of water districts be formulated to work with local jurisdictions and the Forest Service to address “quality and quantity” issues.

Once there is a clear understanding of watershed health needs, Walden said a memorandum of understanding would be drafted about how those concerns are addressed.

They have also incorporated a provision to harvest overcrowded, diseased or bug-infested stands of timber. Again, the federal team wants a working group of county, tribal and state officials to confer with the Forest Service on a 10-year plan to improve the health of timbered areas. Walden said implementation of that plan would eliminate the potential for a catastrophic wildfire that could heavily damage the forest.

“We went into this with a number of principles and ideologies about how to protect the quality of our water and our forest,” said Walden.

“We need to retain and restore the balance of nature while recognizing that there is a huge demand for additional recreation,” he said.

To accommodate that need, he and Blumenauer are recommending that all fees collected through permits and rents on Mount Hood be retained locally to improve existing, and develop new, opportunities.

Walden said a recreation advisory council would work with the Forest Service to plan how these funds would be utilized, such as adding more sanitary facilities near trailheads and at campsites.

He also wants an advisory group put together to help work out transportation issues related to accommodate the growing traffic on the mountain.

Walden and Blumenauer anticipate incorporating any changes from the summits into draft legislation that will be introduced by late winter. They are hopeful to get new regulations enacted by the end of 2006.

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