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Residents Fight for North Side of Mt. Hood

PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) - People who live on the slopes of Mt. Hood sued the Forest Service for failing to execute a land swap that would spare the relatively pristine north side of the mountain from development.

The Hood River Valley Residents Committee says the U.S. Forest Service is dragging its heels on the mandated land exchange, jeopardizing federal wilderness area and stalling watershed protection. They sued the agency on Monday in Federal Court.

Most development on Mt. Hood is in the area around Government Camp, on the south side of the mountain. Mt. Hood is the most frequently climbed major peak in the United States.

The Hood Valley residents say the Forest Service has not followed through with the Government Camp-Cooper Spur land exchange, as required by the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act of 2009.

The land exchange "would resolve a dispute over proposed development on the north side of Mt. Hood and guide future development on the south side of Mt. Hood consistent with local zoning and planned growth," the group says in the lawsuit.

The north side of the mountain, at Cooper Spur, contains roadless wildlands, a drinking watershed, old-growth forests and a backcountry winter sports area with structures from the 1800s and 1900s.

The area has been used for winter recreation since the 1870s and is home to the 50-acre Cooper Spur Ski Area.

Crystal Springs Drinking Watershed, which spans 6.9 square miles, feeds a spring that serves 25 percent of Hood River County residents.

The residents say they were "concerned" about a proposal to trade away 620 acres of county-owned land in the watershed to Mt. Hood Meadows Oregon LLC in 2001.

County commissioners proceeded with the controversial trade despite strong public opposition, according to the 16-page lawsuit, which contains another 56 pages of attachments, including the land-exchange agreement.

Mt. Hood Meadows bought the Cooper Spur Ski Area with plans to develop a large, four-season destination resort on 2,000 acres on the north side of Mt. Hood.

In 2005, after four years of legal battles over the land trade and more than a year of mediation, an agreement was reached to settle the dispute.

The Government Camp-Cooper Spur land trade, between Mt. Hood Meadows and the Forest Service, swapped equal value land on the north side of Mt. Hood for 120 acres of Forest Service land in the Government Camp community revitalization zone.

Properties at Government Camp, owned by the Forest Service, were zoned by Clackamas County for low-density residential use. Land surrounding the south side properties was already developed, is primarily second-growth forest and dominated by signs of past development, including roads, trails and timber harvest.

On March 30, 2009, President Barack Obama signed the Omnibus Public Land Management Act, which required the Forest Service to complete the land exchange within 16 months.

The omnibus act included designation of new wilderness in the Cooper Spur area and establishment of the Crystal Springs Watershed Special Resource Management Unit, contingent upon the completion of the land exchange.

Five years after passage of the Act, on Sept. 12, 2014, Senator Ron Wyden and Congressman Earl Blumenauer wrote Mt. Hood Forest Supervisor Lisa Northrop, stating their displeasure that the Forest Service had not completed the land trade.

"Despite the hard work of many, including Forest Service staff," they wrote, "this exchange has dragged on far beyond the time period laid out in the legislation and has suffered from a lack of resources and staff, who have frequently changed during this process."

As a result, there has been no wilderness designation at Cooper Spur nor creation of the Crystal Springs Management Unit.

"Despite repeated requests from the plaintiffs, Mt. Hood Meadows and members of the Oregon congressional delegation to prepare a proper conservation easement and complete the Government Camp/Cooper Spur land exchange consistent with the Act, the Forest Service has not responded in a timely manner or provided adequate assurances regarding its plan to comply with the Act," the lawsuit states.

Calls to the committee and Forest Service were not immediately returned.

Hood River Valley Residents' Committee, Oregon's oldest citizen land-use activist group, claims its members bring $112 million in agricultural production to the area annually, in pears and other crops.

Hood River Valley is one of world's largest pear-growing areas.

The committee seeks declaratory judgment that the Forest Service "unlawfully withheld or unreasonably delayed" the mandated exchange and an injunction ordering it to complete the land trade "in a prompt fashion."

They are represented by Ralph Bloemers with Crag Law Center.

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