Mount Hood bill dies at sessions end

Senate doesn't respond to last-minute House concession

The 109th Congress adjourned in the early morning hours on Saturday, Dec. 9, without a Mount Hood wilderness bill becoming law, despite eleventh hour pleas from Oregon's U.S. House members.

After several years of meetings, research and firsthand experiences on the mountain, Congressmen Earl Blumenauer, D-Portland, and Greg Walden, R-Hood River, had hoped to give Oregonians an early Christmas present: the first new wilderness designation on Mount Hood in more than 20 years.

Senate counterparts Gordon Smith and Ron Wyden had their own ideas as to what such a wilderness bill should contain. Ultimately, the two delegations were unable to create a compromise bill before the session ended, despite Walden and Blumenauer's offer to 'take any bill the Senate could pass' in the final hours of session, Blumenauer spokeswoman Hilary Barber said.

'We had nothing,' said Barber. 'We didn't receive anything from the Senate. We're very disappointed.'

Smith's press secretary, R.C. Hammond, said the reason the senators didn't accept the last-minute offer was because they wanted true consensus in a Mount Hood bill.

'They are continuing to negotiate, continuing to find an Oregon compromise,' Hammond said. 'This will be the top priority when Congress returns in January. We just want a compromise, and we're confident that we're close to that now.'

Long process

Walden and Blumenauer easily passed their Mount Hood Stewardship Legacy Act in the House last July. That bill would have dedicated 77,500 additional acres around the mountain as federally protected wilderness, added 23 miles of waterways within the Mount Hood Forest to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System and addressed a host of other mountain-area issues.

In August, Smith and Wyden answered the Blumenauer-Walden bill with a proposal of their own. The Smith-Wyden bill called for nearly doubling the amount of proposed wilderness, almost quadruple the number of miles added to the Wild and Scenic Rivers and the creation of more than 18,000 acres of recreation areas.

The Senate bill never made it to committee, much less to the Senate floor. Instead, the Oregon delegation spent the late summer and fall months negotiating a reconciled bill to pass through both houses. Now both houses will have to reintroduce bills again in the new Congress.

Uncertain future

Barber said that despite a Democratic takeover of Congress in 2007 - which, on the surface, would appear to be more favorable to a wilderness protection bill - the failure to pass a Mount Hood stewardship act raises many questions.

'We don't know what's going to happen in the next bill,' she said. Unknowns include Blumenauer's committee assignments, as well as Walden's. Walden, soon to be a member of the minority party, was chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.

'We'll have to see how that goes,' Barber said. 'We need to reevaluate what the strategy's going to be.'

Wyden spokesman Jeff Stuckart agrees that the shake-up in Congress could have implications on the bill.

'I think there will be a lot of new faces in the new Congress,' Stuckart said, 'and I think we need to let that all shake out come January.'

Stuckart said the senators are reluctant to talk about the details of a Senate-driven Mount Hood bill, which would undoubtedly be affected by the new balance of power in Congress.

'The session ended Saturday,' Stuckart said. 'Obviously we need to talk and figure out how to go forward.'

'We're probably going to see a bill reintroduced by Ron Wyden that looks more like the original Wyden bill in '04,' said Don Mench, referencing the senator's failed bill that would have dedicated 160,000 acres around Mount Hood and the Columbia River Gorge as wilderness.

Mench, the Chairman of the Mt. Hood Corridor Community Planning Organization who has been involved with the Blumenauer-Walden efforts for more than a year, said the Wyden proposal would include more protections for roadless areas than the Walden-Blumenauer bill, and perhaps even more than the originally proposed 125,000 acres of added wilderness area.

'It would have been better if they got it passed, got it done,' Mench said. 'Now it could look like the Democrats are trying to ramrod a bigger bill than what this last one was. I'd rather see the parties come together and compromise.'

Mench said it would have been better for the mountain-area economy to have had the bill in place by the end of this year. Among other measures, the bill would have helped create a permanent fix for recently flooded Highway 35 and instituted several land swaps that reportedly would have benefited area businesses and recreation.

'A lot of people were banking on this,' Mench said. 'People were putting a lot of different eggs in this basket. It leaves a lot of businesses upset and a lot of people disappointed. It will be interesting to see the fallout from this.'

Blumenauer's camp is cautiously optimistic about a Mount Hood bill's future in the 110th Congress.

'Ultimately I'm sure something will pass,' Barber said. 'The model we used in the House (to create this bill)… we did it the right way. Oregonians have shown they want it, we've shown we want it - in the House in July - and hopefully we'll see something in the next session.'

'A lot of work went into this and it just fell by the wayside,' added Mench. 'To have something like that just not pass is over a year's worth of effort is pretty disappointing. One more thing that didn't get done by this last Congress.'

Mt. Hood Bill 2006 timeline

March 28: Blumenauer and Walden introduce Mt. Hood Stewardship Legacy Act in committee

July 24: Blumenauer-Walden bill passes in House

Aug. 17: Wyden and Smith propose their own mountain bill, begin negotiations

October : During the election recess, delegation says it's working on reconciled bill

November: Wyden camp expresses uncertainty about bill's future

Dec. 9: Session ends without passage of Senate bill