Asit Rathod knows Mount Hood.
Mt. Hood Meadows President Matthew Drake and his allies have been trying for years to complete an ambitious land deal that would protect more than 700 acres around Cooper Spur and make Meadows a major property owner in the nearby Mt. Hood town of Government Camp.
The deal has been in the works since 2003, back when Meadows was considering a big expansion around the Cooper Spur Mountain Resort, which is owned by Meadows and has overnight lodging. After environmental groups and orchardists opposed that plan, Meadows backed off and negotiated an alternative that involved a land exchange with the Forest Service. It was a hard-fought compromise that appeared to satisfy Meadows, environmental groups and Hood River Valley property owners. Under the deal, Meadows would trade about 770 acres of forest land around Cooper Spur on the northeast side of Mt. Hood for about 120 acres of developable Forest Service land just uphill from the main commercial street in Govy on the mountain's south side.
Environmental groups and Hood River Valley citizens backed the deal because it would create new wilderness areas and protect the Crystal Springs source of drinking water. Meadows liked it because it would allow them to build on-the-mountain lodging, something they have wanted for a long time. The exchange was part of the Mt. Hood Wilderness Bill signed by President Obama in 2009, with an 18-24 month time frame allowed for completion. Six years after that bill became law, the deal is not close to done.
Drake doesn’t even like to think about how much time and money he and his team have invested in the land exchange, between his time, staff time and legal expenses. “It’s probably darn near to the value of the land,” he says.
Drake and Meadows has had to sort out boundary issues, negotiate agreements with the Hoodland Fire District and the Mt. Hood Ski Patrol, and work with Timberline management to preserve the right-of-way for a Mount Hood gondola connecting Govy to Timberline Lodge. And still they are far from finished with the 62-step bureaucratic process that guides federal land exchanges, partly due to a contentious wetlands delineation that has significantly shrunk the amount of land that Meadows will be able to develop in Govy. The property still has yet to be appraised, and a complicated NEPA process lies ahead.
“We have done everything that we were directed to do, in a timely and professional manner,” says Drake. “And then it just goes into this black hole.”
The delays have spurred angry letters from elected officials, a lawsuit from the Hood River Valley Residents Committee, and a Senate Bill sponsored by Senator Ron Wyden, to force the Forest Service into action.
Most recently, Meadows went through a formal mediation process with the Forest Service on September 30 at the request of the federal judge overseeing the lawsuit. The results from that closed-door session are summarized in a signed document that states in Legalese that "the Forest Service and MT. Hood Meadows will work cooperatively to resolve any revisions to the Wetland Conservation Easement..." To read the document, click here.
Meanwhile, Senator Wyden’s bill has been working its way through the political process. The Mount Hood Cooper Spur Land Exchange Clarification Act, co-sponsored by Senator Jeff Merkley, would amend the 2009 Mt. Hood Wilderness law to create firmer deadlines for action. Wyden introduced the bill on September 22, and it was discussed in a subcommittee on October 8.
Drake says he is holding out hope that the lawsuit, the court-ordered mediation and Wyden’s Senate Bill will lead to overdue progress. “It’s been passed by our Congress and the president signed it,” he says. “It should be implemented."
“At this point it’s a matter of finishing the job that we started. I committed to that, and I feel morally and ethically obligated to finish the job.”