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Mount Hood protection bill sails through U.S. House committee

Lawmakers say the act, which would add 77,500 protected acres to the mountain, could be approved by the House next week

The U.S. House Resources Committee unanimously approved the Mount Hood Stewardship Legacy Act Wednesday, and its creators say that the bill is poised for approval by the full House membership - perhaps as early as next week.

U.S. Congressmen Earl Blumenauer, D-Portland, and Greg Walden, R-Hood River, said Wednesday they are confident that their bill - which would add 77,500 acres to the Mount Hood wilderness protection area and institute a number of other mountain-area stewardship measures - will easily pass in a full vote of the House of Representatives.

The Act is the first Mount Hood-focused piece of legislation to make it to the House floor in more than 20 years.

'This is landmark legislation at the right time,' Blumenauer said. 'Literally hundreds of people joined with us to make this sound and attractive.'

Walden and Blumenauer introduced the bill, H.R. 5025, on March 28 after several years of collaborating with the stakeholders who will be impacted by proposed changes on Mount Hood.

The bill has earned support from Clackamas, Wasco, Multnomah and Hood River counties, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, the Campaign for America's Wilderness and Portland Mayor Tom Potter. Fellow Oregon House members Peter DeFazio and Darlene Hooley have co-sponsored the bill

'Clearly this is in shape to become law this year,' Walden said. The Bush Administration has indicated it will support the bill.

The unanimous vote was an unusual occurrence in the Republican-controlled Resources Committee, known for its partisan wrangling over conservation-versus-industry issues.

'We've proven that we're able to run through a very partisan institution in a very bipartisan way,' Walden said. 'Through a committee that is very split over land-use issues in a bitter way, we got unanimous approval. We created a very fine product to approve.'

The House Agricultural Committee, which is entitled to debate the bill, is expected to waive its right to a hearing, making a full vote of the House possible.

The congressmen say the hard part of getting out of committee is over and that they are confident the act will sail through the House.

'The bill passed the resource committee, where any technical or policy concerns would be raised,' said Blumenauer staffer Kathie Eastman. 'It's a very regional issue, so we don't expect any kinds of problems from any other House members.'

The congressmen said they will push for a vote on their bill before lawmakers take their August recess.

If the House's crowded end-of-July agenda doesn't include the act, it would most likely come to a vote in September. If not then, the issue would have to wait until next year.

'Then we'd start all over again,' Eastman said.

Next steps

For the bill to become law, the U.S. Senate would also have to approve the Mount Hood Stewardship Legacy Act or a similar bill.

'We haven't heard anything, really, from them,' Eastman said of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee - the counterpart panel to the House Resources Committee. 'We're anxious to work with them.'

Oregon Senators Ron Wyden and Gordon Smith have shown support for the bill, however it is unclear when or how they would advance the Act.

'Obviously they're key players in this,' Eastman said. 'We'll definitely need their help.'

In 2004, Wyden introduced similar legislation that sought to permanently protect recreational and scenic areas on Mount Hood and in the Columbia River Gorge, and designate 160,000 acres as wilderness areas. The bill died in committee, never reaching the Senate floor.

'This is legislation that could be sent directly to the Senate floor and passed,' Blumenauer said. 'Or, it could be a core for something if people want to add to it. The bill works - it's solid - but I don't think we're averse to looking at something else they (the Senate) come up with. But now's the time to look at it.'

The plan

Blumenauer said the committee vote clears the way for Oregonians to receive 'a Christmas present' at the end of the year: a 41 percent increase in wilderness areas and a new plan for management of the mountain's natural resources.

In addition to adding 77,500 acres of land to the 1.1 million-acre Mount Hood wilderness protection area, Walden and Blumenauer's bill deals with issues in transportation, recreation and natural resources.

"This deals with more than just wilderness acreage," Walden said in a previous interview. "It's about … a wide array of issues that came to us, and I think our bill represents those issues well."

Other priorities within the plan include: adding 23 miles of waterways within the Mount Hood National Forest to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System, supporting recreational activities, developing an integrated transportation plan for the Mount Hood region, the establishment of a special resources management unit to ensure protection of

the Crystal Springs watershed, promoting forested landscapes resilient to fire and disease, and recognizing and supporting tribal activities.

"We worked very hard to make sure we listened to people," Blumenauer said. "The strength of the three-year process we have been involved with is that we have involved lots of people. It¹s not a stretch to say we've given people what they want."

Walden said he and his colleague have "worked out most if not all the issues raised" by affected parties, which include mountain residents, the timber industry, environmentalists and recreation enthusiasts.

'This has been extraordinarily well-vetted in the public,' Walden said. 'We have a bug-free bill that is ready to become law.'

The congressmen say the methods they used to advance the Mount Hood Stewardship Legacy Act - meeting with various stakeholders and making personal visits to the site - has established a powerful precedent for other stewardship acts and natural resource-related bills seeking passage.

'This is a model people can follow, no matter who's in charge, no matter the Administration,' Blumenauer said. 'I think we can see other contentious wilderness/natural resource issues move much more smoothly and I think that would be a very important byproduct.'