Mt. Hoodgate Revisted — Govt Foot Dragging Threatens Sweetheart Land Swap

Update on an old story:

Hood land deal delay; Complex trade may last past Congress date

By RaeLynn Ricarte, Hood River News, October 30, 2009 [here]

U.S. Forest Service officials are unsure if the 64-step process to trade public land with Mt. Hood Meadows Oregon can be completed within the 16 months allotted by Congress.

“We’re going to make a good faith effort, but we’re probably not going to get through all of these steps within that time period,” said Christine Arredondo, recreation and lands staff officer for the Mount Hood National Forest.

The agency was given a little more than one year to complete the exchange authorized by the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act of 2009.

Oregon’s entire Congressional delegation voted in favor of the package that included about 160 bills and was signed into law by President Barack Obama on March 30.

The legislation expanded Wilderness by two million acres in nine states, including the addition of 127,000 more acres of Wilderness on Mount Hood.

The Act also gave the nod to a land exchange that would protect the north face of Mount Hood from development.

The Congressionally intended deadline for completion of the trade is October 1, 2010.

The Forest Service was given neither extra money in its budget nor any legislative relief from regulatory and policy requirements to conduct the exchanges.

The federal plan is to have Meadows exchange 769 acres of its Cooper Spur holdings for 120 acres of national forest near Government Camp.

The company wants to build a condominium complex in the already heavily populated area.

In return, Meadows has agreed to forgo any further development in the southern sector of Hood River County.

Gary Larsen, Forest [Service] supervisor, has estimated that it will take the agency two to three years to complete the land exchanges at a cost of $2 million.

Meadows has been asked to contribute toward the expenses associated with the project, although no monetary amount has yet been agreed upon, according to Rick Acosta, spokesperson for the federal agency.

He said $70,000 was found in the Forest Service’s fiscal year 2009 budget for work associated with the exchanges.

That funding has set in motion both wetland and cultural resource surveys, as well as other environmental assessments.

“We’ve got the preliminary efforts going and we’re moving forward,” said Acosta.

He said the budget amount available for fiscal year 2010, which began October 1, is not yet known, since the federal government is operating on a continuing resolution.

He said any funding cutbacks could extend the timeline to complete the trade, although the agency will do everything possible to avoid a delay.

The land trade was intended to resolve 30 years of disputes between Meadows and the Hood River Valley Residents Committee (HRVRC), a local conservation group.

The exchange of public and private properties was the central piece of a settlement agreement reached between Meadows and HRVRC in 2005.

The conservation group had strongly opposed the company’s plans to build residences on its timbered properties in the southern sector of Hood River County.

David Meriwether, county administrator, assisted with the mediation process between the two parties. He said the local government now plans to advocate for federal funding to make the exchange a reality as soon as possible.

“It’s something that all parties to the settlement and supporters of the legislation want to see accomplished,” Meriwether said.

Arredondo said the exchange process involves numerous studies to determine the potential impact on resources. In addition, each property must be appraised and any differential in values worked out by adjusting boundaries or taking other mitigation measures.

Extra: From SOS Forests, September 27th, 2006 [here]

Mt. Hoodgate

We interrupt Special Week for this Special Report.

Last Friday we noted a full-color editorial in the Ogre-onian that called for rapid passage of the Mt. Hood Wilderness Bill. We also informed readers that the secret deal in the Bill was a sweetheart bailout package for a multi-million dollar company and its tycoon owner.

Friday’s editorial was clear: the Ogre-onian did not care how many acres are included in the Act, or where they are, or how the forests on those acres might be harmed by designation. The Big Issue for the local dead tree media, their Big Demand, was that the American taxpayers pony up the cash and land to buyout/tradeout a private company.

Today the Ogre-onian was forced to report that the US Government Accountability Office investigated the deal, and the investigators have serious problems with the land appraisals. It seems the appraised land values on the acres the company wishes to convey to the government are hugely overstated.

This is an understatement. The parcel of land that the private company wants to exchange is roughly 770 acres of fresh clearcuts [that cannot be developed into a destination resort]. …The plan is to swap 120 USFS acres in Government Camp [that can be developed] for the 770 acres in Hood River County. The problem is, the 770 acres is nearly worthless, and the Government Camp acreage is worth millions. …

Furthermore, the USFS has no desire for the clearcuts. They already have enough of that. The 770 acres does not block them up, but spreads Federal ownership out into private lands in an intrusive smear. This is in direct opposition to their Congressionally mandated land trade/acquisition policies. …

The whole deal is out of the norm for USFS land swaps, to be kind. To be frank [instead], the whole deal is a scam to enrich the rich at taxpayers’ expense. …

We described this sweetheart backroom deal 3 years ago, and taunted the Power Elite about it. Irregardless, the deal got written into the Mt. Hood Wilderness Bill anyway, and then attached whole hog to the Omnibus Bill, and then passed and signed into law.

Now the sweetheart backroom deal struck seems to be grating on the USFS, and much like an unwilling bride in an arranged marriage, that agency is in no hurry to consummate it.

I could go on with similar allusions here, but you get the picture.

Wilderness designation is a dirty deal extravaganza, and Congress milks the racket for all it’s worth.

2 Nov 2009, 10:17am
by bear bait

In the real world, this last year The Nature Conservancy sold 90,593 acres of timberland in the Adirondacks to a Danish hedge fund for $361/acre.

The three highest prices paid in the public record for timberland in large parcels, were Rayonier selling 2300 acres for $2900 per acre, Weyerhaeuser selling 12,000 acres for $2833 per acre and Weyerhaeuser selling 140,000 acres on the Oregon coast for $2429 per acre.

So I find it quite descriptive of the bureaucratic process and the Byzantine business model and agency accountability that the USFS needs $2150 per acre to examine and appraise this proposed land trade. However, I am familiar with the USFS accounting practices and the leeching of money from any activity on the Ranger District level. There are the actual numbers for time and materials for the Ranger District level work to put boots on the ground and gather raw data. Now that the USFS has devolved itself to a fire watching agency and employer of little old ladies and a plethora of volunteers who can’t actually do anything real, they have to submit requests to the Supervisor’s Office to get people from the SO or even the Region to do most work because there are no longer qualified personnel on the District to anything other than take money for maps, visitor permits, use permits, and give directions, plus some permanent seasonal employees who watch fire. So if you need a thousand dollars to do something on the ground at the Ranger District level, you have that thousand dollars, plus the 30% the SO will need to supervise the Ranger District, and the Region will need 50% more to account for all the activity and pass it through legal in order to make their reports and requests to the Chief’s Office in Washington DC, who will need at least thirty percent of that number to be able to host the needed cocktail hours, press releases, and to send the GSA jet out to the area of concern to deliver some bean counter to make the report to the Chief who in turn needs to have secret meetings with the NGOs and get his marching orders. It all runs on money, and now that we know that, we can see our Government is actually a full employment service for voters who support the Gliberals at every juncture and decision. Government believes they can do it better, and the Gliberals think government can do it better. The hitch is that government can’t do anything cheaper. Or even close to affordable. Hell, they can’t supervise the H1N1 vaccine production to a level of above 10% of the stated need!!!! And money is of no account.

The country can’t afford land exchanges, and the USFS can’t gather the funds to do one because the leeches of the ascending levels of bureaucracy take all the money before it gets to the heart of the deal. My diagnosis: Institutional cardiac failure due to lack of blood to the capillaries. Not unlike diabetes. You get too fat and soon the blood doesn’t go to your outlying areas, and the cycle of amputations begins, which in the end you have a body on a piece of plywood with wheels on each corner looking for some type of holistic gravity to propel it. Don’t hold your breath.

2 Nov 2009, 11:45am
by Mike

The situation in this case is much more complex than USFS systemic incompetence. The background history to this land swap is 35 years old, at least, and convoluted. I’ll attempt to summarize.

Mt. Hood Meadows Corp formed in the early 1970’s (or so). They effected a deal with the USFS to build and operate a ski area on the east side of the mountain. They also purchased 1,200 acres in the upper Hood River Valley to build a hotel/destination resort for overnight lodging (something their permit disallowed at the ski area site).

But Oregon land use laws, together with vociferous opposition from some HRV residents, prevented the resort development. Decades of squabbling ensued. Eventually MHM Corp traded their land to Hood River County in exchange for other land (770 acres) higher up the valley.

The County had owned land in the Columbia Gorge Scenic Area before that particular Congressional fiasco transpired. When it did, Congress forced the USFS to purchase the scenic area parcels. That deal took 15 years to close, but when it did, the County was flush with cash. So they added a half $million or thereabouts to the MHM land swap deal, to make up for the disparity in timber value.

The 1,200 formerly MHM acres (now property of HRC) are along Dog River, tributary to the East Fork of the Hood River. The ancient Dog River Trail was the primary summer route from HRV to the uplands of the Deschutes and Metolius watersheds — used for millennia. That property contains petroglyphs and other relics of human occupation, and would have been an ideal parcel for the USFS to acquire and manage for heritage as well as other forest values.

But instead HRC got the 1,200 MHM acres in exchange for 770 cut-over acres on the other side of the valley. HRC has their own forestry department and 30,000 acres of tree farm land. They are one of 3 counties in Oregon that did not hand over their tax-foreclosed forest lands to the state during the Great Depression. They clearcut the 770 acres, and are proceeding to clearcut the 1,200 acres, too. They have no desire or mission to preserve or protect the historical/cultural aspects of their land.

MHM was satisfied that they could finally build their overnight lodging on the 770 acres, but were sadly disabused of that notion when the vociferous group in the valley protested, sued, and generally screwed that option.

So MHM pulled some strings with Congress (for who knows how much in “campaign contributions” to Greg Walden and Ron Wyden), and got a new swap put into the Mt. Hood Wilderness Bill: the 770 useless acres (formerly cutover by HRC) in exchange for 120 USFS acres in Government Camp on the opposite side of the mountain (closer to Portland).

MHM’s desire is to build their long sought after overnight lodging on the 120 acres. They gave up 1,400 acres (through a series of bad transactions) to get it, as well as stuffing money in Congressmen’s pockets.

The USFS is foot-dragging. They were never part of all these land swap shenanigans, although they precipitated the problem by denying overnight lodging at the ski area (most ski areas in this country have overnight lodging). The USFS does not want the 770 cutover acres. They should have desired the 1,400 original MHM acres, or at least the 850 acre portion along Dog River. But that opportunity came and went many years ago.

So Congress meddled and muddled. It was their “gift” to “the economy”. Congress knew that by declaring an additional 130,000 acres of Wilderness, tacked onto the existing 186,200 Wilderness acres on Mt. Hood, they were guaranteeing catastrophic fire, forest destruction, and multiple externality costs to the residents of Oregon. So they threw in this bone as a sop to the monied interests.

In 2008 the Gnarl Ridge Fire [here] burned 3,280 acres on Mt. Hood, and cost $15 million to suppress (due to a series of poor fire management decisions that allowed the fire to blow up twice). The year before that the Bluegrass Fire [here] burned about 900 acres, also in the Mt. Hood Wilderness.

In the coming years we can expect more and larger fires to blanket Mt. Hood and to spread to inhabited areas such as the upper Hood River Valley. Massive disaster lies in the offing. The residents of HRV can rest easy, though. There will not be any destination resort to supply jobs or to protect (via fire breaks) the homes down valley.

So a circus of poor decisions has destroyed heritage forests, body slammed the economy, and will engender holocausts and massive resource degradation. That’s what we get when crooks and cads (i.e. Congress) are minding the government store.

Now the USFS is dragging ass on the deal, but that’s nothing new. It has less to do with incompetence at land trades than with a more general and overriding incompetence at forest management. Throw in some Congressional-level greed and graft, and you have a perfect storm of incompetence that will lead to Katrina-style disasters down the road.

2 Nov 2009, 6:32pm
by bear bait

USFS couldn’t run a good case of dysentery with only prune juice to drink and chittum to eat. They have progressed beyond incompetence to faux expertise, and we are all at risk.



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