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Scenic Area sales `Relief valve' under pressure

Pressure is mounting over a "relief valve" intended to alleviate financial hardship brought by down-zoning under the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act.

A Hood River landowner is questioning her exclusion from the federal land acquisition program when she has recently lost almost all use of her property -- and it has been severely devalued.

"I have been told that I have one of the most archaeological significant properties in the Gorge but apparently no one thinks it's important enough to buy," said Cherry Trautwein, who is prohibited from building on the two flat areas of her hillside property because arrowheads were found there.

Skamania County, Wash., which holds the most private Scenic Area acreage, is challenging the U.S. Forest Service's legal right to re-zone private holdings that are not purchased, especially without a public hearings process.

"There is no law in the land that allows the federal government to control zoning on private property," said Skamania County Commission Chair Bud Quinn.

He said the rural county is set to lose another 2,359 acres of Special Management Area (SMA) properties from its rapidly shrinking private land base -- without any promise of permanent compensation to pay for essential services.

"The government pays up to one percent of the lost tax revenue from Scenic Area lands it purchases for an eight year period so we can make economic `adjustments,' but how are we supposed to do that when only seven percent of the county remains in private ownership and environmental regulations have taken away our ability to harvest timber, our biggest industry?" asked Quinn.

Gorge Reality, a property rights watchdog group based in Lyle, Wash., claims the Forest Service appears to be deliberately targeting the developable land base on the Washington side of the river -- even though the majority of Scenic Area lands were located in Multnomah County when the Act was passed in 1986.

"Today, Forest Service maps somehow show that Skamania County has the majority of Scenic Area acreage, with purchases totaling 18,689 acres, while Multnomah County purchases total only 4,988 acres," said Janis Sauter, Gorge Reality vice-chair.

To date, 1,719 SMA acres or scenic easements have been purchased in Hood River County and 180 more have been offered for sale to the Forest Service.

Sauter, Trautwein and Quinn plan to present their concerns about the Scenic Area land acquisition program at a June oversight hearing of Oregon legislators.

But Daniel Harkenrider, manager of the Forest Service' Scenic Area office, believes the land acquisition program authorized by the Act is on track to purchase "high priority" SMA properties and also some lesser regulated General Management Areas. He said the first choice sites are those identified as "sensitive" because of natural habitat, view location, and cultural or scenic value.

He denies that the Forest Service rezones properties that revert back to GMA status after a three-year window has passed from the time they were offered for sale at fair market value.

According to Harkenrider, if the Forest Service is unable or unwilling to buy these parcels, the SMA ordinance is "suspended" for reclassification. He said because the Act gives the Forest Service authority over SMA lands there is no public hearing process for the new GMA land uses since these closely follow the previous SMA designations to avoid "spot zoning."

If property holders don't agree with the new zoning, Harkenrider said they can file a protest with the federal agency but there is currently no conflict resolution process to handle those disputes -- largely because none have reached that level.

"How would you like to be negotiating with an agency that sets the zoning designation for your property if you don't accept their offer?" asks Skamania County Prosecutor Bradley Andersen.

"The land acquisition program has become a two-edged sword because often the property owner is no better off," said Quinn.

Harkenrider said the arguments over the land acquisition program are short-lived since the last 185 offers under the Section 8(o) provision of the Scenic Act will be either purchased or reclassified in 2003-04. Last year a rush of offers was made prior to the deadline which allowed landowners to sell their properties at the greater pre-Act value.

Trautwein contends that it unfair to ask affected Scenic Area landowners to shoulder the economic burden "for the public good" in any case where value is dramatically affected.

Forest service officials are lobbying Congress for another $30 million to buy the offered 3,500-4,000 acres within the next two years. Ten million dollars in funding for Scenic Area land acquisition has been requested in the president's budget for fiscal year 2002.

But even as the Scenic Act land acquisition program slows, this week several national and local environmental groups banded together with a goal to have 4,000 more Gorge acres purchased along the Lewis and Clark Trail.

"In the spirit of the Lewis and Clark expedition, the Sierra Club, Friends of the Columbia Gorge and Trust of Public Land are launching a campaign to protect several thousand acres of Gorge land for future generations," said Kevin Gorman, Friends' executive director.

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