Oregonian Editorial: Another trek up Mount Hood

Portland Oregonian

If the trailhead in Congress that's supposed to lead to a Mount Hood wilderness bill looked awfully familiar Thursday, it's because Oregon has come this way before.

The fuzzy Web cast of the public hearing held by the forestry subcommittee of the U.S. Senate on Thursday looked like a video of the same trail taken last year on Mount Hood.

There were Sens. Ron Wyden and Gordon Smith proposing an ambitious expansion of Mount Hood wilderness.

There were tribes, conservation and recreation groups all speaking enthusiastically about the new Mount Hood protections.

And there was Mark Rey, the undersecretary of agriculture, once again politely describing the Bush administration's concerns about small islands of wilderness and a controversial land exchange included in the Wyden-Smith proposal.

Maybe this old, familiar way will lead through Congress to a Mount Hood wilderness bill. After all, one thing has changed: Democrats now have control of both the Senate and the House. A year ago, the most powerful lawmaker holding a gavel was former Rep. Richard Pombo, a California Republican known for his hostility to wilderness. Yesterday, the senator with a gavel in his hand, the chairman of the Senate's forestry subcommittee, was Ron Wyden.

Yes, there's reason for hope. But last year, this same political route up Mount Hood, with the same people doing and saying pretty much the same things, came to a dead end. In spite of everybody's best intentions, 2006 ended as the 22nd consecutive year that Congress failed to add a single acre of wilderness around Mount Hood.

The mountain can't wait much longer. There are too many people pouring into Northwest Oregon, too many competing needs on Mount Hood, too much pressure on an urban forest. Congress needs to act this year to protect the mountain's most fragile and beautiful features.

The Wyden-Smith proposal would protect as wilderness another 128,600 acres of Mount Hood forestland, closing about 12 percent of the Mount Hood National Forest to logging or road building. But nearly all the land is essentially off limits to those activities now.

Further, the bill would enable, with some new conditions, an exchange of public land near Government Camp for private land on the northeast slope of the mountain. The land exchange is a difficult issue -- new appraisals required under the legislation should clarify whether it is in the public interest.

A year ago the push for Mount Hood wilderness fell apart when Oregon's congressional delegation couldn't agree on a single proposal. Even now, the two lawmakers who have done the most work on Mount Hood, Reps. Greg Walden and Earl Blumenauer, have yet to publicly comment on the Wyden-Smith proposal.

We urge them to put aside their frustration of a year ago, when their own Mount Hood plan passed the House but died without a Senate vote. This new effort needs the support, the energy, of every Oregon lawmaker. Otherwise, it will fall short again.