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Mixed views on Wilderness ‘master plan’

By RAELYNN RICARTE

News staff writer

March 25, 2006

State and national conservation groups are generally pleased about a proposal to expand Wilderness areas on Mount Hood by 41 percent.

The Hood River Valley Residents Committee is also satisfied that the Mount Hood Stewardship Legacy Act of 2006 better protects the Crystal Springs watershed.

U.S. Reps. Greg Walden, R-Ore., and Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., will introduce their new legislation next week. They crafted the master plan for uses on Mount Hood after almost four years of public discussions and interviews with stakeholders.

U.S. Reps. Darlene Hooley, D-Ore., and Peter Defazio, D-Ore., have agreed to co-sponsor the bill.

In the Legacy Act, Blumenauer and Walden are seeking Congressional approval for the settlement agreement between the HRVRC and Mt. Hood Meadows Ski Resort.

Under that plan, Meadows will turn its Cooper Spur Mountain Resort holdings over to the U.S. Forest Service. In exchange, the company will receive property to build 480 housing units near Government Camp. HRVRC has chosen to protect the local watershed by not opposing growth in a residential and commercial area of Clackamas County.

“I am pleased to see us making progress toward permanent protection for the historic backcountry on the north side of Mount Hood at Cooper Spur. I applaud the Congressmen for their hard work,” said Mike McCarthy, a HRVRC member and pear farmer from the upper Hood River Valley.

“This is a model for solving complex land-use issues in national forests,” said Dave Riley, general manager of Meadows.

However, HRVRC joins the Oregon Natural Resources Council and other environmental groups in the belief that 77,500 acres of new Wilderness isn’t enough. Land given that federal designation is restricted to all mechanized vehicles — even baby strollers —- and limits human activity.

“Oregonians overwhelmingly support protecting lands on Mount Hood as Wilderness for this and future generations. If anything, our kids will look back and say we protected too little, instead of too much,” said McCarthy.

“Everybody’s kind of walking this line where we’re glad to see this move forward but we all think there is room for more Wilderness,” said Erik Fernandez, ONRC wilderness coordinator.

The ONRC has identified 261,000 acres of wilderness-quality land on Mount Hood and in the Gorge. They would like to see the old-growth forests around Boulder Lake, the wildlife migration corridor of Bonney Butte and bio-diverse woodland along Fifteenmile Creek also set aside as Wilderness.

If that is not possible, both the ONRC and HRVRC believe that U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden’s former proposal of 177,000 new Wilderness acres is a better option.

However, Walden and Blumenauer stated during recent public forums that it will be difficult to push any new Wilderness legislation through the House Committee on Resources. The political climate in the House, said Walden, has not been friendly to more land regulations. In fact, it has been 21 years since any additions were made to the 186,200 acres of Wilderness on Mount Hood.

“We are pushing the outer limits with the scope of this bill as it is,” said Walden, “I respect those who seek more Wilderness but the reality of the legislative process can’t be ignored. If you want a bill that can become law, this is that bill.”

Congress has signed five Wilderness bills into law during the past several years. However, only the Caribbean National Forest Act of 2005 in Puerto Rico concerned forest land. And that bill only designated 10,000 new acres of Wilderness.

Other legislation added 33,500 acres to the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore Wilderness in Wisconsin and 11,183 acres to the Ojito Wilderness in New Mexico.

The largest recent Wilderness grant from Congress was 251,965 acres of desert in Nevada that was incorporated into a Bureau of Land Management study area.

Three hundred acres has actually been withdrawn from the 9,886 total that made up the Cumberland Island Wilderness in Georgia.

In Washington state, the Wild Sky Wilderness Act of 2002 proposed 106,000 acres along the Skykomish River system for added protection.

In a bipartisan move, nine of the 11 Congressional delegates from the neighbor state supported the first Wilderness expansion in 18 years. The bill failed that year and was re-introduced in 2003, 2004 and 2005 legislative sessions — only to die in the House.

“Many stakeholders, including Mt. Hood Meadows, may feel compelled to ask for more of this or more of that but I believe we all need to focus on supporting what our Congressmen have told us is do-able in this political environment,” said Riley.

Fernandez remains hopeful that if the Legacy Act makes it through the House, Wyden, D-Ore., and Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., will be able to further expand Wilderness areas on Mount Hood.

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