Foes unite to protect icon

PORTLAND, Ore. – Congressmen Greg Walden and Earl Blumenauer come from different sides of Mount Hood, the snowcapped Oregon icon that looms over Portland and the Columbia River Gorge.

Republican Walden comes from the rural conservative side that has traditionally viewed the forests on the mountain’s flanks as a source of timber and jobs.

Democrat Blumenauer comes from the urban liberal side that depends on the mountain for drinking water and outdoor recreation.

Despite past clashes over environmental issues, the two have come together, even buddying up for a backpacking trip around the mountain. Out of that has come a proposed bill to put 75,000 acres of wilderness off-limits to logging on the Mount Hood National Forest, without reducing the area where logging can occur.

Their proposal would also guide ski resort development, reduce forest fire danger, maintain tribal foods such as huckleberries and enhance outdoor recreation, particularly mountain biking.

It comes at a time when the Republican Congress has been stingy about designating wilderness, and the Bush administration has been a close ally of the timber industry.

“As a resident of Hood River, I know the huge role Mount Hood plays economically,” said Walden, a major player in legislation that eased environmental laws to make it easier to thin forests to reduce wildfire risk. “We’re trying to keep the mountain ecologically sound while it carries on its shoulders the increasing recreation demands of the region.”

“It is in danger of being loved to death,” said Blumenauer, best known as a bow-tied bike enthusiast and champion of mass transportation. “There are 3 million people who can get there in a couple-hour drive. That number over the next 100 years is probably going to double. We are not going to want less winter recreation, summer recreation, skiing and sightseeing.”

With widespread local support from former timber communities as well as conservation groups, the plan also may signal a watershed in the spotted owl wars, the bitter debate that has gone on more than 20 years over whether Northwest national forests are primarily a source of timber, fish and wildlife habitat, or even cathedrals for spiritual renewal.

“It’s a political shift,” said Andy Kerr, who was a lighting rod for timber industry attacks during the spotted owl wars while with the Oregon Natural Resources Council. “You now have a generation of politicians who aren’t beholden to big timber, and Oregon has urbanized.”

Change in the landscape

Back in 1984, the last time Congress designated wilderness on Mount Hood, timber was the state’s top industry. Congress was pushing logging at record levels. Conservation groups were desperately trying to pass legislation that would put the biggest and oldest trees off-limits to chain saws by making them wilderness, a designation that prohibits logging and mechanized vehicles, while sometimes allowing livestock grazing and small-scale mining.

Ten years later, the timber industry had disappeared from many of the small towns that grew up around mills and logging camps. The Northwest Forest plan, adopted in 1994 to settle lawsuits that froze logging in spotted owl habitat, cut harvests west of the Cascades by more than 80 percent. The bitterness between urban and rural Oregon remained strong, even as timber was overshadowed by high-tech and tourism.

Sherry Holliday grew up in a logging family and was mayor of Maupin when the last mill in town shut down in 1992, costing her husband his job. Now a Wasco County commissioner, she supports the Walden-Blumenauer proposal. With timber jobs mostly a memory, The Dalles is looking forward to a new facility being built by Web search engine giant Google, and Maupin has become the center of whitewater rafting and steelhead fishing on the Deschutes River.

“I truly never thought I would see the day this would happen, that people would be able to agree on some things,” she said. “Certainly we went kicking and screaming – but we realize the writing is on the wall.”

Wasco County is particularly concerned about protecting drinking water sources on the mountain. It also recognizes that people taking jobs at Google see protections as good, not encroachments on property rights and the natural resources economy, Holliday said.

“I think we’ve become more aware of our environment, and the need to protect it,” she said.

Like Wasco County, the town of Sandy, which calls itself the gateway to Mount Hood, wants to protect drinking water coming off the forest, said Mayor Linda Malone, a letter carrier in the nearby city of Gresham. It also depends on skiers, hikers and mountain bikers to spend money on their way to the mountain.

“We’re not a timber town any more,” said Malone.

Malone testified in favor of a bill sponsored last year by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., that would have created more than twice as much wilderness on Mount Hood. But she will settle for less.

“I guess I’d rather have something than fight the good fight and have nothing,” she said.

Some want more

While Walden and Blumenauer argue this is the best they can hope to get through a conservative Congress, conservationists and insiders say that as a close lieutenant of House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo, R-Calif., Walden is practically assured of getting what he wants through the House. Conservationists hope some compromise with Wyden’s bill will boost the acreage.

“While Sen. Wyden would like to see considerably more wilderness, this will be a bicameral process,” said Josh Kardon, Wyden’s chief of staff. “We have been in discussions with Sen. (Gordon) Smith (R-Ore.) for many weeks, and we hope to achieve a bipartisan Senate proposal in the coming months.”

There is widespread speculation within Oregon that Walden is trying to green up and moderate his image for a run for governor or the Senate – speculation Walden pushes aside. He notes he got legislation through Congress in 2000 that created 175,000 acres of cow-free wilderness on Steens Mountain, sidestepping a Clinton administration effort to create a national monument.

“I want to do what’s right for Mount Hood,” he said.

Walden said this is the most wilderness he can get through the House, but also the most that can be put off-limits to logging without becoming an obstacle to forest thinning to reduce forest fire danger in watersheds towns use for drinking water.

“It’s important to remember wilderness is not the only management tool on Mount Hood,” Walden said. “The Forest Service’s own planning document estimates 60 percent of the forests are overstocked,” and in need of thinning.

The timber industry does not oppose the proposal, praising the fact it was crafted from grass roots up with local support. The American Forest Resources Council is pressing for a provision that opens other timbered areas for consideration for future logging, and support for certifying that logging on national forests meets international standards for sustainability.

“The bottom line here is Mount Hood is Portland’s play area, but Portland consumes the most lumber and wood products of any Oregon communities, too,” said Chris West, vice president of the group. “Our view is the congressmen have done a pretty good job of balancing those.”

The Oregon Natural Resources Council, meanwhile, would like to see three times the wilderness as the Walden-Blumenauer proposal. It also is afraid that by protecting the Roaring River Basin, the biggest and best chunk, the proposal will take the air out of future efforts to get more, both on the Mount Hood and around the state.

“The way wilderness was 20 years ago, when somebody suggested it, people fought like cats and dogs over it,” said ONRC spokesman Steve Pedery. “Today it seems like everybody wants it. We just need the politicians to show some leadership.”

Walden and Blumenauer have clashed in the past over the allocation of water between farmers and threatened salmon in the Klamath Basin, where Walden was a powerful champion of the farmers.

But Blumenauer also co-sponsored Walden’s Steens Mountain bill, and the two – at Walden’s suggestion – spent four days hiking 41 miles around Mount Hood, stopping for presentations from experts and interest groups.

“We were, I would wager, the only bipartisan backpacking duo in Congress,” Walden said.

“You are making decisions on a trail,” said Blumenauer. “It just kind of cemented it all.

“If the worst somebody can say about it is we would like more, cool, I think that’s great,” he added. “We think we’ve hit the sweet spot.”

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