Mount Hood recreation may go big time

Will a destination resort push out pear orchards?

 

MOUNT HOOD, Ore. - A full-blown ski resort has always been something of a Holy Grail to the Pacific Northwest ski industry. Confined to remote federal lands, where condos are prohibited and buildable private land is either nonexistent or too distant, Northwest ski areas have been resigned to cater to a mostly regional, day-use clientele. As a result, the ski area sprawl that has redefined landscapes and local economies across the Rocky Mountain West simply hasn't been an issue in the Northwest. But perhaps not for much longer.

On a swath of clear-cut timberland just uphill from cattle ranches and pear orchards on the northeastern flanks of Oregon's 11,239-foot Mount Hood, surveyors have begun staking out what could become the first Colorado-style destination ski resort in the region. Late last year, Mount Hood Meadows Development Corp., a company that owns and operates the largest of three day-use ski resorts concentrated on Mount Hood's southeastern slopes, began its fourth effort in several decades to go big time. The company quietly began acquiring development rights to nearly 2,000 acres of public and private land on the mountain's less-developed northeast side. While the company is publicly evasive, sources say its latest plan is a sprawling resort with seven high-speed chair lifts, a hotel, restaurants, condominiums, vacation homes, a boutique shopping village, an ice arena, and an 18-hole golf course. All this in the very heart of the last backcountry refuge on the mountain: Kate McCarthy's backyard.

The feisty 84-year-old matriarch of the McCarthy family, which settled in the Hood River Valley in 1910 and collectively owns 500 acres, has embarked on a whirlwind tour of the region to galvanize opposition to the project. Her traveling two-hour slide show amounts to a photographic indictment of the developer's environmental sins on the other side of the mountain: wildflower meadows entombed in asphalt, streams clogged with silt, oil, and logs, an alpine forest of rare whitebark pine clear-cut for a ski run, denuded slopes ravaged by runoff.

"Some people consider this to be the most beautiful mountain on the globe," says McCarthy, founder of the Friends of Mount Hood, a grassroots group that went to court and stopped a major expansion by Meadows in 1988, and recently won a settlement from the company in a suit over Clean Water Act violations. "If you clear-cut a mountain and leave it alone, the forest will grow back in a generation. But once you put a ski area in, that wilderness is lost forever," she says.

Swapping pears for ski hills

According to McCarthy and a growing number of her supporters, there's much more at stake here than the loss of the last intact piece of wilderness on Mount Hood. Namely, she says, the development could spell the end of a rural economy and an agricultural community.

Just a few miles downhill from the planned resort, pear orchards march down the mountain's flanks and fan out to the east, west and north for 25 miles, almost to the banks of the Columbia River. Together, the Hood River Valley's 350 mostly family-owned farms produce the world's largest crop of d'Anjou pears.

Like most U.S. farmers, the valley's orchardists are struggling for survival in a global economy. Most haven't recovered from the devastating crop of 2000, when a bin of Hood River d'Anjou pears, which cost $120 to produce, fetched just $80 in a market glutted with fruit imported from the Southern Hemisphere. The returns from last year's crop, most of which is still in cold storage, don't look much more promising. Some two dozen farms are up for sale in the valley. Should the resort be built, warns McCarthy, it's only a matter of time before the Hood River Valley is blanketed with multimillion-dollar trophy homes, as has been the trend in Colorado ski country. Colorado lost 1.4 million acres of agricultural land to development between 1989 and 1999; in that same time period, in Aspen's Roaring Fork Valley, subdivisions, malls and accompanying ski-area sprawl consumed 55 percent of all available agricultural land.

But some Mount Hood area farmers believe a ski resort could offer economic salvation.

"Being a farmer today is not profitable and it's certainly not any fun. I'm working four off-farm jobs, and my husband has two," says Camille Hukari, a fourth-generation Hood River Valley pear farmer. "If somebody knocked on my door and offered $2 million for my land, I'd sell it tomorrow. As far as I'm concerned, the best and highest use of my land is for condos."

Hood River County commissioners would welcome an economic boost, too. With 78 percent of its lands under federal, state and county ownership, and therefore off limits to local taxes, Hood River County draws from one of the smallest revenue pools in Oregon. Bringing a destination resort to the valley is an essential element of the county's economic master plan, so much so that the Board of County Commissioners has been advertising for a destination resort planner in the Hood River News.

"We don't want to create any more hardships for the farmer," says John Arens, the board's outgoing chairman, "but you have to consider the potential economic benefits something like a destination resort could have on our school budget, which is being cut by $2 million," due to the decline of logging revenues.

Although the board says it has not decided whether to support the proposed ski resort, Meadows Development's general manager Dave Riley says the ski area would help local residents manage the burgeoning recreation. Last year, more than 4 million skiers, hikers and climbers, many from nearby Portland, flocked to the slopes of Mount Hood.

"We're doing the mountain a favor by taking demand for recreation and accommodating it in areas where it's carefully managed and controlled," Riley told the Portland Tribune in March.

Go back to Colorado

But some valley residents say the commissioners' fear of economic decline is fueling questionable deals between the Board of County Commissioners and the ski area. Last July, Meadows Development purchased the Cooper Spur Ski Area, a bunny hill serviced by a tow lift on 1,400 acres of permitted federal land. Five months later, the board agreed to give Meadows $1.1 million and 640 acres of county land adjacent to Cooper Spur in exchange for a 785-acre parcel of uncut forest land elsewhere on the mountain - a parcel commissioners say is more valuable for logging. The county assessor valued the county land at $325 an acre, when quarter-acre lots in a nearby subdivision fetch $40,000.

"The county commission has been trying to sell this valley to the highest bidder for years," says McCarthy. "They don't give a damn about anything but money."

McCarthy's son, Mike, backed by Friends of Mount Hood, which includes local residents, backcountry user groups, and national environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club, filed a petition in Hood River County Circuit Court in March. They hoped to nullify the land trade and restore county ownership of the 640-acre parcel at the center of Meadows' planned resort. They lost. Mike McCarthy has appealed the ruling, and resort critics locally and throughout the region are dug in for a long fight. Due to their previous ability to stop Meadows from expanding, they are hopeful.

"Essentially what's at stake is the whole nature of Mount Hood itself," says Joe Keating of the Oregon Chapter of the Sierra Club. "Right now there's a balance between industrial recreation and wilderness. If that resort goes in, the whole mountain will look like one big commercial recreation area."

Ted Katauskas is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon.

YOU CAN CONTACT ...

  • Friends of Mount Hood, P.O. Box 293, Mount Hood, OR 97041 (541/352-6228), [email protected];
  • Hood River Board of County Commissioners, Hood River County Courthouse, 309 State St., Hood River, OR 97031 (541/386-3970, ext. 125);
  • Dave Riley, Mount Hood Meadows Development Corp., P.O. Box 470, Mount Hood, OR 97041 (503/337-2222, ext. 259).

Copyright © 2002 HCN and Ted Katauskas

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