Freewheeling wilderness proposal irks purists

by Deanna Belch



Wilderness proposals come in unusual shapes and sizes these days, but the latest from Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, D, might just take the cake. The Lewis and Clark Mount Hood Wilderness Act of 2004 comes complete with provisions for mountain biking, forest thinning and lift-served skiing — all activities that are prohibited in wilderness areas.

In March, warning that the region’s booming population would eventually "love the mountain to death," Wyden floated a proposal to designate 160,000 acres of new wilderness around Mount Hood and the Columbia Gorge, and protect four new stretches of wild and scenic river. Wyden got an earful in response, and now his proposal looks quite different: It ups the acreage to 190,000, doubling Mount Hood’s current wilderness, and includes some controversial provisions.

The original bill would have closed about 200 miles of existing mountain-biking trails on Mount Hood National Forest. Bikers squawked, Wyden listened, and so a pilot project called the Hood Pedalers Demonstration Experiment was born. Although not designated wilderness, the 13,000-acre "Hood-PDX" would be managed in accordance with the Wilderness Act, except that mountain bikes would be allowed on 30 miles of trails that could be maintained with chain saws — two wilderness taboos.

Through the bill’s revenue-retention provision, Hood-PDX would be funded with permit fees from other developed recreation on the forest, such as the proposed Southside Winter Recreation Area, which would encompass existing and planned downhill and cross-country skiing outside of the wilderness boundaries. The Forest Service would monitor the Hood-PDX’s impacts on the environment, the economy and on the area’s other users. After 10 years, Congress could either declare the program permanent or designate the land a traditional no-bike wilderness.

The International Mountain Bikers Association says the Hood-PDX area isn’t enough, however. The group believes bikers should be allowed in some wilderness areas, and says that cycling in the backcountry is no worse for the environment than hiking. "Damage to trails is not the same as damage to natural ecosystems," says Gary Sprung, the group’s senior national policy advisor in Boulder, Colo.

To steer the Forest Service away from logging old-growth trees, the bill would pump $4.5 million annually into thinning second-growth plantations outside the wilderness limits. The bill would give preference to local contractors, but 22 percent of Mount Hood National Forest’s "matrix" land — where timber harvest is permitted — would be locked up, reducing the forest’s allowed harvest from approximately 60 million board-feet per year to 50 million.

Timber officials respond that thinning is already authorized under the Healthy Forests Restoration Act, and say the bill would only further reduce the amount of logging allowed under the Clinton-era Northwest Forest Plan, which projected up to 1 billion board-feet a year from matrix lands (HCN, 9/27/04: Life After Old Growth). "This is nothing more than a disguise to totally rewrite the Mount Hood National Forest management plan," says Chris West, vice president of the American Forest Resource Council. "It’s not an inclusive plan, it’s preclusive."

Even some environmentalists are unhappy with the bill: The proposed wilderness includes small, fragmented areas and over 20 miles of roads, as well as power lines and a state highway. All this, some wilderness advocates say, conflicts with the intent of the Wilderness Act, which calls for protection of the land in its most natural state, without commercial or mechanized means of recreation and without permanent improvements.

"Calling this area wilderness but managing it as something less would be a tragedy and a travesty," says Scott Silver of the nonprofit group Wild Wilderness. "Those who advocate for such (wilderness) ‘improvements,’ whether they realize it or not, are advocating for the end of wilderness."

Silver agrees with mountain bikers and timber industry advocates that an alternate designation — such as a national scenic area or a recreation area — might be more appropriate. Some have suggested making the area a national park. "At least, (a park proposal) does not seek to create tiny wildernessettes and roaded wildernesses," says Silver. "It is forthright in stating that it is an attempt to replace logging with industrial tourism."

But Bob Friemark, senior policy analyst for The Wilderness Society, supports the proposal’s wilderness additions. "Wyden deserves a lot of credit for waving the wilderness flag. (Industry) arguments against the purity of the bill are an excuse not to get some areas protected."

Josh Kardon, Wyden’s chief of staff, says the senator will stick to his wilderness guns when he reintroduces the bill early in 2005. But pedaling the bill through Congress might be an uphill struggle, since it hasn’t yet won the stated support of Oregon’s other senator, Republican Gordon Smith. "We will discuss possible improvements with Sen. Smith, and perfect the language so the bill passes early next year," Kardon says.

The author is an HCN intern.

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