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An uphill battle?

By RAELYNN RICARTE

News staff writer

September 30, 2006

The political climate in Washington, D.C., was tense this week as Oregon’s Congressional delegation scrambled to reconcile two Mount Hood master plans.

A wrench was thrown into the works when the property appraisals in a Hood River County land swap were declared faulty by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. (See related story, Land swap hits major roadblock.)

However, the report supporting the GAO findings has still not been released to Dave Riley, general manager of Mt. Hood Meadows Oregon LLC or the Hood River Valley Residents Committee.

“I think we’re entitled to see the reviews,” said Riley. “We asked at the onset of this process for the opportunity to correct any potential deficiencies. And we’re still asking for that opportunity.”

Then, at this week’s Senate subcommittee hearing on the Lewis and Clark Mount Hood Wilderness Act, a top-ranking official from the Bush Administration threw in another wrench. Undersecretary of Agriculture Mark Rey testified that no legislation should include more than 55,000 acres of new Wilderness on Mount Hood.

Senate Bill 3854 asks for 128,000 more acres of Wilderness and the Mount Hood Stewardship Legacy Act approved by the House in July adds 77,500 acres.

Rey’s comments drew a sharp retort from a lead staffer in the office of Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., co-author of the Lewis and Clark Act.

“Sen. Wyden believes the people of Oregon have spoken loud and clear, and they want to protect the Gorge and Mount Hood for future generations. These areas are unique and special, and we shouldn’t try to apply an arbitrary limit cooked up in Washington, D.C, when local folks have clearly asked for more,” said Geoff Stuckart, deputy state director.

U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., said it was “disappointing” to realize that nothing would be finalized by the time that Congress adjourned on Friday. That was the goal he and U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Portland, set when they introduced the Legacy Act earlier this year.

“It took a lot of hard work to meet all the tests that were in front of us and this is really something that we believe in,” said Walden.

He said it is difficult to predict how the next session will go since it starts the week following the Nov. 7 general election. There could be an upset in some Congressional seats — and a potential change of political will.

“Earl and I were very aware this year that, in a post-election environment, all bets are off,” said Walden.

He said it has been 22 years since a Wilderness bill made it through the federal government and added 27,427 acres to the total of 158,773 then in place on Mount Hood. Wilderness areas are intended to preserve resources and prohibit the use of mechanized equipment, as well as strictly restricting human activity.

“We just about pushed the limits in the House to increase Wilderness on Mount Hood by 40 percent,” said Walden.

Even through the week did not end as he might have liked, Walden remains optimistic that all is not lost. He said, at the moment, HR5025 appears to be the “compromise” between the Bush Administration’s preferences and the proposal by Wyden and U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., which increases Wilderness by almost 70 percent.

Walden is also confident that, if the House and Senate can negotiate a common plan, it is unlikely that President George W. Bush will veto the final product. Even if it ends up incorporating more Wilderness than the Administration would like.

“I just don’t see that happening if we’re all on board,” he said.

During the next six weeks, the Oregon delegation will continue negotiating some key differences in the two bills.

Wyden’s office declined this week to address why SB3854 was introduced in place of proposed amendments to HR5025. In 2004, about one year after Walden and Blumenauer began taking public comment on how best to protect resources and recreation on the mountain, Wyden introduced legislation similar to the current bill but did not move it forward.

There are several other major wrinkles between the two Mount Hood bills that remain to be ironed out. The Lewis and Clark Act also sets aside 18,700 acres for National Forest Recreation Areas. However, it is unclear about how that land will be managed and what uses allowed.

In addition, the senators want to add almost 80 miles of Wild and Scenic Rivers protection, 55 more than approved by the House.

Some of the additional Wilderness areas incorporated in SB3854 are isolated parcels, which has been frowned upon by U.S. Forest Service officials. The agency contends it is difficult to manage a restricted zone that sits in the middle of a recreated area.

The Senate also needs to identify which government regulatory body will oversee protection of the Crystal Springs Watershed if the local land exchange ends up being enacted.

The senate legislation does adopt the House bill language dealing with transportation, recreation, forest health, watershed protection and tribal provisions.

“The key is for us all to work together and come up with something that can become law,” said Walden.

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