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by Brenna Bell, Bark Staff Attorney
On May 11, 2016 Senator Ron Wyden & Representative Earl Blumenauer sent their second letter regarding the proposed Polallie Cooper Timber Sale to Mt. Hood National Forest Supervisor, Lisa Northrop. The letter, joined also by Senator Jeff Merkley, asks the Forest Service to put planning efforts for the Polallie Cooper project on hold until the Forest Service completes a long-delayed land exchange with Mt. Hood Meadows.
In 2009, Congress passed a broad public lands bill that included the Mt. Hood land exchange as part of the Mt. Hood Wilderness designation. This bill directed the U.S. Forest Service to complete the exchange within 16 months. The Omnibus Bill was written so that only after the land exchange was complete would other provisions of the bill – specifically protections for the Crystal Springs Aquifer and the creation of a new Wilderness area – be enacted.
The land exchange process stalled over the past several years, leading to conservation and development uncertainty, community frustration, and a lawsuit against the Forest Service. On April 20th, the U.S. Senate passed the Mt. Hood Cooper Spur Land Exchange Clarification Act, championed by Senators Wyden & Merkley, as part of a series of amendments added to a broad energy bill. This bill is intended to re-invigorate the land exchange process.
Adding another layer of complication to management in this area, in 2015, Mt. Hood National Forest resurrected the controversial Polallie Cooper Timber Sale, first proposed by the Forest Service in 1999 but withdrawn in 2005 after strong public opposition. Ten miles south of the community of Parkdale, the Polallie Cooper planning area includes the Wild and Scenic East Fork Hood River corridor, portions of the proposed Tamanawas Falls Wilderness, Northern Spotted Owl critical habitat, a section of State Highway 35, the Cooper Spur winter sports area, several popular hiking trails and the Crystal Springs drinking water aquifer. Of the 3,000 acres proposed for commercial logging, approximately 1,900 of these acres include mature, old growth or never-logged forest.
After a public comment period in which over 3,000 comments opposed the Polallie Cooper Timber Sale, on March 7th, Senator Wyden & Representative Blumenauer sent a letter to Supervisor Northrop, outlining several concerns about the proposed project. Key among these concerns was the fact that none of that provisions of the Omnibus Bill were complete: “We have repeatedly expressed our strong concern and disappointment that the Forest Service has been long delayed in finalizing the land trade, which has impeded the exchange itself, and also the establishment of the Crystal Springs unit.”
Mt. Hood Forest Supervisor Lisa Northrop replied to this letter on March 21, explaining the reasons that she and her staff have planned the Polallie Cooper project and believe it complies with the intent of the 2009 Omnibus Bill.
However, the Forest Service’s response letter did not address a key element of the controversy: a number of the groups that were part of crafting the compromise solution that became the 2009 Omnibus Bill consider several parts of the proposed project to conflict with that legislation. If the land exchange were completed, and all provisions of the Omnibus Bill enacted, the parties could resolve this disagreement in court. As it is, the Crystal Springs provisions are not legally enforceable.
Today’s congressional letter makes that very specific request that the Forest Service delay planning the Polallie Cooper Sale until such time as the land exchange has been completed, and all parts of the original collaborative agreement are implemented. The request does not delve into substantive concerns about the Polallie Cooper Project, rather it seeks to ensure that the original legislative intent behind the 2009 Bill is realized before the Forest Service approve a controversial large scale logging project.