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County payments tops concerns for local officials

During a visit by Sen. Gordon Smith’s aide, Hood River leaders discuss prospects for the county

January 18, 2006

The Hood River County Commissioners gave Sen. Gordon Smith’s field representative a long list of concerns last week that they wanted the federal official to address.

Topping that list was continuation of the “county payments” law. Local leaders are worried that school and road maintenance programs could be adversely affected by a loss of compensation for the reduction of harvest levels in national forests.

“It’s kind of a vague point to argue that timber harvests have fallen off — they haven’t fallen, they’ve disappeared,” said County Commission Chair Rodger Schock to Richard Krikava, who works out of Smith’s Portland office.

The Secure Rural Schools Act (SRSA) of 2000 provided a stable source of revenue for counties that are no longer able to generate an income from harvests on non-taxable public lands.

Last year, U.S. Rep. Greg Walden introduced House Resolution 517 to reauthorize the existing SRSA funding formula through 2013. County officials wanted Krikava to reiterate to Smith, R-Ore., how important it was for Oregon’s delegation to fight for passage of that legislation.

“We heard there was a discussion of potentially redoing the formula so that Oregon isn’t such a big ‘winner’,” said Dave Meriwether, county administrator.

Krikava declined to provide comments on behalf of Smith but scribbled notes to take back to his boss.

“I’m the foot soldier out here charged with getting your message to him,” he said during the informal meeting at the Best Western Hood River Inn.

Krikava was also asked to convey the need for Smith to support the siting of a tribal gaming casino in Cascade Locks. County Commissioner Carol York said the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs’ plan needed to be protected from movement by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and U.S. Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., to restrict off-reservation gaming.

She said Gov. Ted Kulongoski had endorsed the proposal in the spring of 2005, as had a bipartisan contingent of government leaders representing Hood River County. York said the tribes had already spent million of dollars to comply with the existing language of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) of 1988 in their request to build on 25 acres in Cascade Locks’ industrial park.

Therefore she said, the proposal should be “grandfathered” so that it was not affected by any changes in the law. Neither Smith nor Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., has yet taken a stand on the issue. Interior Secretary Gale Norton, who oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs, is expected to rule on the Warm Springs’ plan this summer.

“I think if it gets to that point (IGRA amendment) no action by Sen. Smith could be harmful. I recognize that Smith is not going to be a champion of gaming but when he is asked an opinion we hope that he will be supportive of Cascade Locks,” said York.

Schock asked that Smith give strong support to a land exchange that would soon be incorporated into legislation by Walden and U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore. He said the settlement agreement reached by Mt. Hood Meadows Ski Resort, Inc., and the Hood River Valley Residents Committee provided protection for the Crystal Springs watershed in the southern sector of the county.

Under that plan, Meadows has agreed to forego development of its Cooper Spur Mountain Resort holdings. In exchange, HRVRC will not oppose the company’s intent to build a large condominium complex that Clackamas County has zoned for that purpose near Government Camp.

“It just makes good common sense to do that trade,” said Schock.

However, the deal requires a land exchange with the U.S. Forest Service that will have to be signed off by federal officials.

“They’ve got to agree if anything’s going to happen on that mountain. Sen. Smith will approach the Walden and Blumenauer proposal the same way he has approached the Wyden plan,” said Krikava. “He’ll look to find the balance between the community needs and the needs of the mountain.”

“I think Sen. Smith’s position could be conciliatory; he could enable that balance,” said Commissioner Maui Meyer.

Commissioner Chuck Thomsen stated the belief that there was already enough Wilderness on Mount Hood. Walden and Blumenauer have proposed 75,000 more acres that will be off-limits to mechanized equipment and restrict human activity. Wyden drafted a plan in 2004 calling for 177,000 acres of added Wilderness.

“The think the trouble with these Wilderness plans is that you don’t know how they will impact us until they are passed,” said Thomsen.

Krikava said it was important for Hood River government leaders to stay involved in the political process regarding the future of Mount Hood.

The county board then briefed Krikava on their tentative plans to go into the business of renewable energy. Officials asked that the market for small producers be protected against large energy interests who did not want competition.

“It’s very important for small rural communities trying to do these projects that there is no legislation that comes through to make it more difficult,” said Commissioner Les Perkins.

“We feel there’s a good future and good revenue in this and it could help shore up the county’s budget,” said Meyer.

The county concluded their remarks by asking that Smith and other federal legislators take a hard look at the issue of affordable housing in America. They said people with median incomes of $50,000 or less were being priced out of the ability to own a home.

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