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Mount Hood land swap draws fire

By RAELYNN RICARTE

News staff writer

August 16, 2006

U.S. Reps. Greg Walden, R-Ore., and Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., contend that when Congress trades national forest lands for private property there is more to consider than just a “dollar for dollar” deal.

And a legislatively mandated trade follows a much different protocol than the stringent administrative process undertaken by the U.S. Forest Service.

Walden and Blumenauer believe that recent media coverage criticizing a House-approved land swap failed to consider these points. They agree that House Resolution 5025, known as the Mt. Hood Legacy Act, focuses on the “greater good” as defined by hundreds of constituents.

“We cannot ignore the other public values that we’re elected to weigh in on,” said Walden.

The two officials stand behind the bill they authored that allows Mt. Hood Meadows Oregon LLC, a limited partnership run by Portland businessman Franklin Drake, to turn 786 acres of its Cooper Spur holdings over to the government. In return, the company would gain about 120 acres of federal land near Government Camp that has been zoned by Clackamas County for housing.

Walden and Blumenauer disagree with the assertion by a retired Forest Service official that the property appraisals were skewed in favor of Meadows. The appraisal conducted by Steven Hall of Missoula, Mont., who is on the Forest Service’s approved list, estimates the value of the Government Camp property at $3.8 million and the Cooper Spur ski area and adjoining resort facilities at $5.5 million.

According to Hall’s reports, Meadows is actually paying more at $31,750 per acre than two smaller pieces of land zoned for the same purpose. In a list of comparables, he said the Weidenweber Sale of 40 acres went for $30,195 and the 26.43 acres of the Menashe Sale for $16,978 each.

“We (Meadows and Hood River Valley Residents Committee) went out and each came up with lists of people we wanted to do the job. We interviewed and then scrutinized these people and we were all comfortable with Steve Hall,” said Ralph Bloemers, attorney for HRVRC.

The official stance of Joel Holtrop, deputy chief of the Forest Service, is that the agency has concerns about several aspects of the Legacy Act, including the land trade. But the agency believes these areas of concern can be addressed through a cooperative effort.

“We see a great potential, working with the many stakeholders of the region and beyond, to meet the objectives of HR5025 to protect for future generations the recreation opportunities and resource values of the Mt. Hood National Forest.

“We believe we can accomplish these objectives using existing authorities as well as some of the provisions of the bill. The Administration would genuinely like to work with the Committee to build on our mutual interests and resolve our concerns,” stated Holtrop in written testimony to Walden’s Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health this spring.

However, Mike Ash, former deputy regional forester for Oregon and Washington, contends the Government Camp parcels would bring more than $15 million on the open market. He believes that restricting the land exchange to one private party does not serve the public as well as a competitive process would.

Blumenauer said focusing only on the appraisals is shortsighted. He and Walden believe Ash incorrectly compared the protocols of an administrative trade with legislative action that provides more flexibility. They believe the trade would save taxpayers million of dollars in costs to provide infrastructure for development of the more environmentally sensitive Cooper Spur area.

“I don’t know whether Mt. Hood Meadows will make more money on the south side of the mountain but I know if they develop on the north side the public will lose,” said Blumenauer.

Nevertheless, the federal officials have addressed the allegations of unfairness by asking the U.S. Government Accountability Office to review the appraisals for any deficiencies. They feel confident the proper steps were taken and the appraisals paid for by Meadows will hold up under Senate review in September.

Hood River County Administrator Dave Meriwether kept watch over the appraisal process. He said strict criteria were followed, as required by the settlement agreement worked out between HRVRC and Meadows during more than one year of mediation.

“The level of meticulousness with which this process was scrutinized was open and transparent. We have great confidence in the appraisals and all the parties were definitely involved,” he said.

Walden said a similar dispute between the Forest Service and Congress arose over the surplused Bend Pine Nursery property. At the end of his second term, President Bill Clinton authorized the Forest Service to sell a 170-acre tract of the nursery. That legislation granted the Bend Metro Parks and Recreation District the first option to buy the land for athletic fields and community recreation.

Walden said the Forest Service used procedural challenges to delay that deal for three years. By that time, according to Walden, the value of the property had increased to the point it was no longer affordable by the Parks District. Finally, Congress stepped in and mandated that the trade take place for the original $3.5 million of value that the appraiser hired by Parks and Recreation had come up with.

“When we legislate they (Forest Service) seem to take it personally and that’s unfortunate,” said Walden.

HRVRC and Meadows contend the appraisals of both properties involved in the trade were accurate and fair. In fact, Meadows agreed to give up any monetary payment for the differential just to resolve a 30-year dispute with the conservation group.

The once-bitter opponents are united in their concern about the aspersions made by Ash. They said the Forest Service was asked numerous times to participate in selecting an appraiser and then reviewing his/her work — but the agency declined.

“Really, it was the Forest Service who didn’t want to participate at all and now, at the eleventh hour, we are seeing the result of that dysfunctional process,” said Bloemers. “The fact is that only Congress can create Wilderness; the Forest Service can’t create Wilderness and that’s why this had to be done legislatively.”

Dave Riley, general manager of Meadows, said no “back room deals” were made. He said HRVRC hired its own consultant, Bob Bancroft, another appraiser on the Forest Service list, to look over Hall’s work and make sure it protected the public interest. When Bancroft was satisfied that the correct procedures had been followed, HRVRC ran the appraisal results past 15 different conservation groups with large memberships to gain their approval.

Scott Franke, HRVRC president, said the trade under HR5025 protects the Crystal Springs watershed and keeps development in an area that is already largely residential.

Plus, the Legacy Act adds an additional 77,216 acres of Wilderness to the Mt. Hood National Forest and 25 miles to the Wild and Scenic River system. In addition, the bill provides for long-term planning to meet future recreational and transportation demands, as well as upgrade forest health and honor tribal treaty rights.

“There are a lot of intangible things that are part of this exchange that we think are important,” said Franke.

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