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Delay in Senate could sink Mount Hood bill — for now

Wyden and Smith say they are writing their own version

Congressmen Earl Blumenauer, D-Portland, and Greg Walden, R-Hood River, may have cleared a significant legislative hurdle Wednesday with the U.S. House Resources Committee's unanimous vote in favor of the Mount Hood Stewardship Legacy Act, but don't expect the act to become law anytime soon.

The act - which would add 77,500 acres to the Mount Hood wilderness protection area and institute a number of other mountain-area stewardship measures - could come to the House floor for a vote as early as next week, but a similar bill is not yet ready in the U.S. Senate.

Blumenauer and Walden said they hoped the Senate would adopt their bill. However, Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Gordon Smith said that while they are supportive of better stewardship of the mountain, they are working on their own wilderness proposal.

Details are few with regard to what Wyden, a Democrat, and Smith, a Republican, would change about the Blumenauer-Walden proposal.

'It's still a work in progress,' said Chris Matthews, a spokesman for Smith. 'It's not like the senators are reaching for a specific target in terms of numbers (of acres of wilderness), but really it's how much wilderness can you create without negatively impacting the other uses of the mountain.'

Elizabeth Edwards, Smith's legislative correspondent, said that one of the senator's concerns is the provision that wilderness areas don't allow mountain bikes.

Wyden - who sponsored a 2004 bill that would have dedicated 160,000 acres around Mount Hood as wilderness - has said he would like to see more than 77,500 acres dedicated to wilderness protection.

'Each office has a different plan,' Edwards said. 'They're sort of working towards a common plan that we can submit to the Senate.'

'We're looking forward to working with (Smith's office) to resolve differences and produce a Senate bill,' said Josh Kardon, Wyden's chief of staff. 'Discussions are going well, and as soon as we have a bill worthy of the mountain we'll come forward with it.'

Congress has two weeks until it goes on August recess. Lawmakers will return to Washington for four weeks in September before the election recess. After that, Congress may convene for a 'lame duck' session, however, it is uncertain how long such a session would continue.

With as little as six weeks left in the current Congress, the wilderness bill faces the possibility of dying at the end of the year. Although the House may approve the act next week, if the Senate doesn't put forward and approve a similar or reconciled bill before the end of the year, both legislative bodies would have to reintroduce the act at the beginning of the year.

But representatives of the two senators gave no indication as to when Smith, a Republican, and Wyden, a Democrat, would be ready to introduce a bill.

'They hope to introduce (a bill) soon,' Matthews said. 'There's no real timeline. It's really just a matter of paying close attention to the details, the interested groups and the need to balance everything.'

Wyden's camp agreed. 'We're not predicting timelines,' said Jeff Stuckert, Wyden's press secretary. 'The most important thing to do is to not do it quick, but do it right.'

Eastman says Blumenauer and Walden are confident that if they had to reintroduce the bill in January that it would easily pass again. But right now, 'the House side could be ready as soon as next week,' she said.