County approves Punchbowl plans

Punchbowl Falls

Peter Marbach
Punchbowl Falls

County commissioners authorized an application for a state grant to create a public park at Punchbowl Falls Thursday night.

Commissioners unanimously decided to approve the grant application after hearing public testimony at a special work session at 601 State St. on March 19. The decision was timely considering the application deadline is April 1.

The $578,000 grant would allow the county to buy the land from Western Rivers Conservancy, a Portland conservation non-profit, and establish a protected public park. If the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department approves the basic concept plan, the next step is a hearing in June to decide the park’s fate.

At the work session, members of Hood River Valley Residents Committee, a local land use watchdog group, stressed a concern for the Punchbowl scenic area to remain open to the public. Their presentation outlined a plan for the park to become “passive use” area, as low cost and natural as possible. The only major changes to the scenic area would be several new trails, a gravel parking lot and a public restroom.

Executive director Heather Staten said the cost of upkeep and maintenance would be low once initial costs are met, roughly $5,000 for trash, trails and toilets. Donations and volunteer labor can cover some of that cost. The real challenge is acquiring the grant in the first place. The county failed in its attempt last year.

Westerns Rivers Conservancy is willing to sell the land to the county for half price at $578,000. But even that amount is daunting ¬— it accounts for 1/8 of Oregon’s total park grant fund. If the state denies the grant application again, Western Rivers could sell the land to a private buyer. The deal would include an environmental easement protecting the waterfall area from logging or damage to wildlife, but would likely bar the public from accessing the land.

Punchbowl advocates hope increased public attention will improve the potential park’s fortunes. Hood River Valley Residence Committee conducted an online survey with 565 respondents, interviewed dozens of local stakeholders and held several public meetings in order to gauge public support for their park design.

Commissioners expressed support for the park plans.

“I hope it comes to fruition,” said County Chair Ron Rivers.

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