Wednesday, December 28, 2005
December 14, 2005
Cascade Locks officials are pleased that a newly proposed Wilderness expansion stops at the Gorge ridgeline – and won’t impede on urban activities in and around the town.
“I think we appreciated that the authors heard what we were saying and incorporated our concerns into this conceptual plan,” said City Administrator Robert Willoughby.
Local government leaders are also appreciative of the tentative support given by U.S. Reps. Greg Walden, R-Ore., and Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., for a key land exchange. The Port of Cascade Locks wants to expand protection along a 10-acre section of Pacific Crest Trail that lies within its ownership.
In exchange, the public agency would like to swap 10 acres of land owned by the U.S. Forest Service within the city’s urban growth boundary. That property would house the city’s only senior housing development. The port is even willing to throw in another 22 acres east of Herman Creek to sweeten the deal.
“The port has been very supportive of the Pacific Crest Trail for a number of years. Under the existing zoning, we could have even clear cut this site. But we’re holding off on doing anything with the land while these negotiations are underway,” said Port Director Chuck Daughtry.
Mayor Ralph Hesgard, a native of Cascade Locks, feels relieved about Blumenauer and Walden’s idea to form a working group that restores forest health.
The city is bordered by the Mount Hood National Forest and Hesgard said diseased and overstocked stands of trees have created the potential for a catastrophic wildfire that could destroy the community. In addition, he said the density of timber has squeezed out the sun-loving huckleberry plants that were once enjoyed by residents, tribal members, and visitors.
“Years ago, you could walk all over up there and, once in awhile, you would have to step over a tree. Now you can hardly get through the forest and that heavy fuel load is putting us at risk,” said Hesgard.
Willoughby said the Mark O. Hatfield Wilderness currently extends to within one mile from the south-eastern edge of Cascade Locks. He is grateful that Walden and Blumenauer are recommending that 17,000 additional acres of Wilderness in the vicinity stop at the Gorge ridgeline.
According to Willoughby, if the boundary had been moved any closer it would have created real hardship.
Under the Wilderness Act of 1964, mechanized transport is prohibited on protected lands. Not only are vehicles, bicycles and baby strollers disallowed, so are the chain saws needed to efficiently clear away downed trees. Willoughby said city power lines run through the woods and workers need the ability to perform maintenance tasks.
“We’re not opposed to Wilderness, we think that is part of the tourist experience that we can sell in Cascade Locks,” said Willoughby. “We are just glad that this new Wilderness proposal avoids any conflicts that would exist.”
He said the city also needs to disturb some natural resources in the national forest — currently prohibited in Wilderness areas — to underground 18 miles of overhead power line.
Willoughby said that project is necessary for public safety since the major wildfire in 2003 was ignited by a branch that landed on a utility line. He said a shower of sparks was sent into dry grass and burned much of the eastern rim of Cascade Locks.
Hesgard said that fire would have been much worse if flames had reached the dead and dying trees that topped the hillside above the city.
“If a fire with a good west wind got up on that ridge then where would Hood River be? With all of the problems in the forest between here and there it would be difficult to stop the spread of a fire,” he said.
Blumenauer and Walden want local, state and tribal officials to confer with the Forest Service on a 10-year plan to improve the health of the national forest. Hesgard said enactment of that plan would provide more protection for his hometown and its residents.
Daughtry said it typically costs about $200,000 and takes 10 years to complete a land exchange with the federal government. He is optimistic that, with support from federal legislators, the “win-win” deal between the port and Forest Service can go through much sooner.
He said the port originally purchased 38.5 acres near the Bridge of the Gods in the 1970s to build a tram that would take visitors on a ride over the craggy terrain. However, that idea was shot down by conservationists, so the port built the Sternwheeler “Columbia Gorge” instead. And that has left the land, zoned for residential use, sitting idle for the last three decades, according to Daughtry.
Although the normal buffer along the Pacific Crest Trail is 100 feet on each side, the port is allowed under the existing zoning to develop within five feet of the trail at the western end of town.
Since the Forest Service property lies within the scant urban growth boundary, Daughtry contends that everyone would gain by the trade. He said the additional acreage at the eastern edge of the city is being included in the port’s offer to ensure that the value of the Forest Service land is met or exceeded.
“We have so little land within Cascade Locks that we just can’t give up our property. We think this is a fair deal for everyone,” said Daughtry.
The port has drawn up conceptual plans for the city’s first senior housing project. In addition, the public entity wants to provide lots for other residences that accommodate a range of incomes, as well as a ball field for youth sports.
Although Walden and Blumenauer have shown cautious support for the port’s proposal, they said it is premature to give it their full endorsement. The property trade will have to go through a public hearings process and Walden said it will be important to explore all aspects of the deal before any final decision is made.
The two federal officials are currently working on draft legislation that incorporates their conceptual plan for Mount Hood.