Asit Rathod knows Mount Hood.
Why is everyone so angry at the Forest Service these days? The federal agency with jurisdiction over Mount Hood and its glaciers, forests and streams is getting slammed by senators, sued by citizens and ridiculed far and wide for its inertia, nit-picking and general cluelessness over the Mt. Hood Land Exchange. Why?
Here are seven reasons that come to mind.
When Mt. Hood Meadows agreed to a creative compromise over future development with local citizens, orchardists and environmental groups in July of
2005, the legal battles and mediation had already been going on for over five years. An additional four years of work led to the Mt. Hood Land Exchange being mandated by Congress in the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009. The deal was to be completed within 16 months.
More than 75 months have passed since President Obama signed that legislation, and the Forest Service isn't even close to closing the deal. Five years of delay have brought major frustration to Mt. Hood Meadows management, angry letters from Rep. Earl Blumenauer and Sen. Ron Wyden (who recently blasted the Forest Service’s behavior as “way over the line”) and finally, a lawsuit from Hood River Valley Residents Committee.
“There is a law on the books to complete this exchange, and the Forest Service has failed to meet its terms," says orchardist Mike McCarthy. "We don’t enter litigation lightly but five years late is egregious. We cannot afford to sit idly by and let the Forest Service run this into the ground through inaction and abuse of their agency.”
“It has taken longer than anybody would have anticipated just to get to where we are now," says Mt. Hood Meadows President Matthew Drake. "The last two years have been just been completely bogged down. We’re just stopped. There’s nothing more we can do.”
Under the land exchange, Meadows would give up more than 700 acres on the northeast side of Mount Hood, including the Cooper Spur Ski Resort, in exchange for 120 acres of developable property in Government Camp just uphill from town.
Environmental groups and local citizens agreed to the deal because it preserves some magnificent hiking, creates new wilderness areas and protects the Crystal Springs source of drinking water.
Meadows agreed to the deal because it allows them to develop something they have wanted for years: on-the-mountain lodging with shuttle buses transporting visitors from town to the slopes. The 6:1 ratio of property lost to property gained was offset by the services and amenities already available in Govy, and zoning that allows for residential development there.
"We’re talking about protecting thousands of acres on the north side of Mount Hood at the same elevation, a unique historic recreation and backcountry area that has been largely undeveloped, that is wilderness and a drinking water source, in exchange for land that is currently developable in Government Camp, where there already are services," says Ralph Bloemers, the lead attorney suing the Forest Service. "The conservation community has assessed the entire package and come to the conclusion that it is a great deal for the public. Not only are more acres being protected, but it’s triggering more protections for thousands of acres.”
The U.S. Senate voted 66-12 the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 to protect more than 200,000 acres of natural areas near Mount Hood and other Oregon locations, along with 2 million acres in eight other states. The resounding yes vote was a big victory for Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, which helps explain why the senator is so furious about the delay in making the land exchange happen.
“I try very hard to be a pleasant, low-key character," Wyden said at a recent public forum. "But no more on this.”
That could be because the agency didn't want it to happen in the first place. A 2005 letter from Forest Service Director of Recreation, Lands and Mineral Resources Kimberly Brown reads, "We are very concerned that these news reports [about the land exchange] give the expectation that this deal could be consummated. The reports do not represent the views of the Forest Service."
A separate letter written in 2004 by Deputy Regional Forester Mike Ash states, "At this time, it would not be in the public's interest to proceed with such an exchange."
By law, land exchanges need to involve properties of relatively equal value. That can make for a very tricky appraisal when you are talking about hundreds of acres of high-elevation land with forests, hiking trails, waterways, and wetlands. Ah, wetlands.
The specific detail holding up the land exchange is a conservation easement relating to wetlands on the Government Camp property Meadows would receive under the deal. There are about eight and a half acres of wetlands on the Govy property, mostly alder, skunk cabbage and ladyfern, downhill from the drinking water source for local residents and businesses. The easement understandably protects those wetlands from development. It also creates 20 acres of buffers around the wetlands and sets strict terms and conditions about the liability of property owners hoping to build in the vicinity. Add it up and you are left with about 30 acres off limits, or 25 percent of the Govy property.
"What the Forest Service has put forward is totally unworkable," says Matthew Drake. "The impact on value would be dramatic. And that’s a big problem, because it affects the whole notion of an equal exchange. If the property that we’re exchanging for is worth zero, then the property we give up also has to be worth zero.”
Usually property owners are the people slamming government agencies for setting burdensome, inflexible rules. In this case the people complaining the loudest about the Forest Service's conservation easement are environmentalists.
Until the conservation easement dispute is resolved, the appraisal of the two properties cannot happen. And the land exchange will never happen without an appraisal.
The long-delayed Mt. Hood Land Exchange has created a lot of uncertainty on the mountain, and that directly affects another long-delayed project, the Mt. Hood Gondola.
The gondola would create an aerial connection between Govy and Timberline Lodge, and it would run through the western parcel of land that would go to Meadows under the land exchange. Timberline and Meadows have developed a general agreement about allowing the gondola to pass through the property, but the agreement is meaningless as long as the deal is in limbo.
Matthew Drake says Meadows is "still 100 percent committed to the land exchange." Meadows was added to the lawsuit as an involuntary plaintiff for legal reasons, but Drake says he would prefer to work with rather than against the Forest Service. “We’re heading into our 50th year of a successful partnership with the Forest Service, and we have never had a legal dispute with them. We just work it out. But we haven’t had that opportunity yet on this matter... Hopefully what will come out of this will be the opportunity to resolve this and move forward.”
Hood River County has also joined the plaintiffs, to protect its Crystal Springs drinking water source and popular recreational and wild land around the Cooper Spur resort.
McCarthy, Bloemers and other land exchange supporters also hope that 15 years of work will not evaporate into thin air. They are meeting with Forest Service attorneys to seek out ways to speed up the process and make the deal happen. They are also lobbying Senator Wyden and other members of the Oregon delegation to force the Forest Service into action.
“We don’t see litigaton as a great way to solve problems," says Bloemers. "We’re happy to solve problems other ways. But if you have a party like the Forest Service that acts in arbitrary ways and takes endless amounts of time and threatens the whole thing, then we have no choice but to force legal action to enforce Congress’s will, the law.”