Plan would create new Mt. Hood wilderness

WASHINGTON (AP) – Groups from across Oregon largely supported a bill Wednesday to create 77,500 acres of new wilderness in the Mount Hood National Forest.

But a representative of a lumber company that employs more than 300 people near the mountain said the bill sets aside too much land as wilderness.

Oregon Reps. Greg Walden and Earl Blumenauer sponsored the bill, which would expand the amount of wilderness ?” the most restrictive of federal land designations ?” on the mountain by more than 40 percent. The bill would be the first new wilderness in the 1.1 million acre forest since 1984.

Speakers at a public hearing praised Walden, a Republican, and Blumenauer, a Democrat, for working together on the proposed wilderness ?” a process that often proves contentious because of its severe restrictions on logging and other commercial activity.

The bill would put thousands of acres of forest off-limits to logging, while also guiding ski resort development, reducing forest fire danger, maintaining tribal foods such as huckleberries and enhancing outdoor recreation ?” particularly mountain biking, advocates said.

"This landmark bill will preserve special wild places like the rugged backcountry of Oregon’s Roaring River, the thousand-year-old cedar trees in Big Bottom [and] the old-growth and drinking watersheds of Eagle Creek," said Ken Rait, campaign director of the advocacy group Campaign for America’s Wilderness.

Rait and other supporters said the bill would give better protection to existing wilderness areas on Mount Hood, the state’s tallest mountain and among its most popular tourist attractions.

"We must never lose sight of the fact that we protect wilderness for people," Rait said, noting that the population of nearby Oregon counties has expanded by as much as 40 percent in recent years.

"It is simply good common sense that our congressional leaders plan for this growth by conserving more lands as a responsible natural legacy, lest we and our children look back with regret," he said.

But Frank Backus, chief forester for SDS Lumber Co., a family owned business in nearby Bingen, Wash., said the proposal would lock up too many acres as wilderness. Backus also spoke on behalf of the American Forest Resource Council, a national timber industry group based in Portland. Backus is the group’s chairman.

While he applauded Walden and Blumenauer for including industry representatives in planning the bill, Backus said his company and the AFRC believe only about 22,840 acres should be designated as new wilderness.

Some areas don’t meet strict criteria for wilderness set out in the 1964 Wilderness Act, Backus said, while others represent a wildfire risk and should be available for thinning.

"We must carefully look at each and every acre removed from multiple-use and put into wilderness or non-management status," he said.

A proposal to trade some land from a local ski resort to the Forest Service, for instance, should be modified so the land is available for logging, Backus said. Existing Forest Service land near the ski resort is already designated for such use, he said.

The Walden-Blumenauer bill is supported by at least four of the state’s five House members. Democratic Reps. Darlene Hooley and Peter DeFazio are co-sponsors. A spokeswoman for Rep. David Wu, D-Ore., could not be reached for comment.

A spokesman for House Resources Chairman Richard Pombo, R-Calif., said the proposal appears to meet a series of criteria Pombo laid out in 2004 for new wilderness designations. Pombo’s endorsement is considered crucial to adoption of a wilderness bill by the GOP-controlled House.

Brian Kennedy, a spokesman for Pombo, said Walden and Blumenauer appeared to have "left no stone unturned in getting community input" for the Mount Hood proposal.

"Given the criteria the chairman put out in 2004, I think he would be inclined to support their efforts," Kennedy said.

Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., also praised the bill and said he and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., are working on a similar plan. Wyden proposed a bill in 2004 that would have nearly doubled the amount of wilderness on Mount Hood, but the bill was never voted on in the Senate.

Smith called the House bill "a very good-faith effort," but said he and Wyden were hoping to create even more wilderness.

"Sen. Wyden and I are working on a proposal we can introduce in the Senate, but it becomes very complicated when you expand it much beyond 100,000 acres," Smith said. A spokesman later clarified that Smith was speaking hypothetically, and no legislation has been drafted in the Senate.

The House Resources panel is expected to take up the Walden-Blumenauer bill sometime next month.