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New year could end decades of land disputes

January 4, 2006

The fate of four major land-use issues in Hood River County could be decided in 2006 — ending long years of divisiveness.

But all of the proposed projects have dissenters who are poised to fight government approval of the projects.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) is currently reviewing the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs’ plan to build a casino/resort in Cascade Locks’ industrial park.

Interior Secretary Gale Norton, who oversees the BIA, is expected to make a decision about the 500,000-square-foot facility sometime next summer. The Warm Springs want to purchase 25 acres of the 120-acre industrial park owned by the Port of Cascade Locks for the casino, plus lease another 35 acres for a parking lot.

In exchange, the tribes will give up development rights on 40 acres of trust land that is exempt from regulation just east of Hood River. The Warm Springs have also offered to sign over 175 acres of adjacent property within the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area to the state.

For a variety of reasons, the off-reservation site has been endorsed by Gov. Ted Kulongoski, U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., Oregon Rep. Patti Smith, R-Corbett, and Oregon Sen. Rick Metsger, D-Welches. In addition it has received the approval of virtually all government leaders in Hood River County.

“Cascade Locks needs this ‘tourism with a roof’ to encourage business growth and keep the community from dying,” said Cascade Locks City Manager Robert Willoughby.

However, No Gorge Casino! recently formed to fight any gaming operation in either Cascade Locks or Hood River, the tribes’ alternate site. The group contends that gambling causes social ills and the expected three million people visiting the casino each year will also bring traffic congestion and air pollution.

“We who live in the Columbia Gorge are facing the biggest threat in decades to our families, our communities and the environment,” said John Randall, No Casino co-founder.

U.S. Reps. Walden, R-Ore., and Blumenauer, D-Ore, have given their tentative support for a historic agreement to protect the north face of Mount Hood. They believe there is merit to the “compromise plan” put together by Mt. Hood Meadows Ski Resort and the Hood River Valley Residents Committee (HRVRC). The agreement, reached after months of mediation, calls for Meadows to forego further development on 317 acres of its Cooper Spur holdings. In exchange, HRVRC will not oppose Meadows’ goal to construct 480 housing units in Clackamas County.

“I am confident that the model of problem-solving and dispute resolution created by the agreement will inspire the early support of Congress,” stated Kulongoski last fall in a press release of support.

Bark, a watchdog group solely dedicated to protecting the Mount Hood National Forest, has taken a “wait-and-see” stance on that plan. Alex P. Brown, executive director, said tentative support has been given by his organization for the agreement between Meadows and HRVRC. However, he said a formal hearings process is required for Meadows to trade its Cooper Spur lands for acreage near Government Camp that is owned by the U.S. Forest Service. He said comments from the public could change the existing concept — and thereby lose support from the conservation community.

“The devil is in the details when it comes to legislation. We’ll know more when we actually see it written out,” said Brown.

He said Bark is strongly opposed to an expected increase in timber harvest under Walden and Blumenauer’s conceptual plan for the mountain

Last month, the two officials unveiled an overall vision for mountain uses that included removal of downed, diseased and overstocked trees. Although the federal representatives contend that some logging is necessary to ward off catastrophic wildfires, Brown disagrees.

“The Mount Hood National Forest has been abused for decades by over cutting and the taxpayer subsidized building of roads,” he said.

He argues that not only is timber harvest not conducive to forest health, it is not economical. Brown said the logging operations on Mount Hood cost taxpayers $13 million per year since the expenditure for managing timber sales far exceeds revenue.

“The Congressional blueprint falls short of addressing this problem,” he said.

Bark joins the Oregon Natural Resources Council and other conservationists in the belief that there should be much more than 75,000 acres of added wilderness in the pending “multi-tiered” plan. Walden and Blumenauer decided to expand the existing Wilderness by 40 percent because that number could probably gain approval from a largely conservative Congress. And plenty of timber land would still be available, they reasoned, to accommodate a wide array of recreational interests.

On the local front, the Port of Hood River will soon dive into creation of a new waterfront master plan. Sherry Bohn, president of the port board, said the deed is being finalized to officially transfer six acres known as Lot 6 to the City of Hood River for a public park. Once that property along the Columbia River has been preserved for recreational use, Bohn said work will begin on the conceptual design for a light industrial/business park on the remaining 31 acres.

“We are going to develop it; we are going to move forward with this,” said Bohn.

Unknown is whether citizen activists will oppose any construction near Portway Avenue. The city electorate has twice passed initiatives to ban development at the waterfront south of that roadway. And, although both measures were deemed to be illegal, proponents continued to call for the land to be zoned as green space. However, since the port signed over the $1.7 million parcel for a park, the opposition movement appears to have died down.

All of the four projects are still subject to citizen scrutiny so officials are aware that they are far from a done deal. But hope is running high among Hood River County leaders that enough common ground will be found to continue the forward momentum.

“It seems as though we are moving in positive directions. We’re starting to solve some long-standing debates in this county,” said Hood River County Commission Chair Rodger Schock. “Let’s congratulate both sides on these issues for their willingness to work out a compromise that’s in the best interest of our community.”

If a resolution is found in the four areas during 2006, it will put an end to more than 30 years of a bitter fight between Meadows and HRVRC, almost 10 years of wrangling over casino placement and more than two decades of waterfront zoning disputes.

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