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Forest Service chief discusses Gorge, NSA topics

Question and answer session with new area manager.

Dan Harkenrider, the U.S. Forest Service's area manager for the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, has been on the job in Hood River since January 2001.

Now that he has had time to become familiar with several high-profile -- and sometimes controversial -- issues, Harkenrider took time to sit down with us and offer his views on some of the current "hot issues" within the National Scenic Area.

Harkenrider has been with the Forest Service since 1978. Before coming to Hood River, he served as district ranger for the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.

The interview took place on Feb. 13.


What is the status of the proposal to build a satellite fire station on Burdoin Mountain?


There is good news on that question. It sounds like the planning will be a little easier than I implied, and a little quicker than we led them to believe. Depending on circumstances and the ultimate design, we may need a much less intense analysis. The plan may not take as long and costs will go down. The more we can minimize the size of the building, the easier it will be. The more of a grandiose design, more complex their planning gets, then the planning gets more complex. There really is a benefit to keep it simple. If it is, the review process could be pretty minimal.

We plan to meet sometime in late February or in March. By then, they'll (Lyle Fire Department officials) have a better understanding of their planning and design, and if they will be able to raise money. There is a permit process yet to go through, to ensure the project is consistent with the land use of the area. A fire station is a permitted use, but visual impacts would have to be mitigated.


The U.S. Forest Service made a presentation to the Columbia River Gorge Commission on Feb. 12 regarding the Condit Dam removal proposal. How would you characterize the Forest Service role in this issue?


The Forest Service made a staff presentation analyzing the Wild & Scenic River part of the dam proposal. The local (Hood River) office did a consistency review of the federal action.

I want to stress that this is FERC's (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) decision, it's not a Forest Service decision. We are only responding to a proposed action. The meeting was intended to present the history of the Forest Service's involvement with the proposed action, and brief and bring commissioners up to speed on this issue. This was not a Forest Service project. The Forest Service is not a proponent of dam removal or fish ladders. Either one would work under our guidelines. PacifiCorp made a business decision and said, `we want out.'

The Forest Service was asked to withdraw from the Settlement Agreement. Some people feel it affects the agency's credibility. They feel if we've already entered into a agreement, how can we find the deal is other than OK? But we emphasized repeatedly that we have authority under the Scenic Act to come to different conclusions, if that's the case. The Settlement Agreement was predicated on information at the time. But if new information comes up, well, we never gave up our right to do so (come to a different conclusion).

We'll take an objective look at the proposal. All federal actions have to comply with the Scenic Act, and the Forest Service will do consistency reviews for all federal actions. The Forest Service will respond to FERC's draft Final Environmental Impact Statement, but again, this is not a Forest Service decision. FERC takes comments seriously, but they don't necessarily have to accept what we tell them. It's important for all who have opinions, pro or con, to get those opinions in to FERC and let FERC weigh that.


Have you heard when FERC might make its decision on this case?


FERC is notoriously slow. The new administration has been encouraged to clean up the backlog and get going, and this is one of those projects that might be acted on. Typically, FERC takes six months to a year to make a ruling. It could be less than that now.

The folks opposed to dam removal have challenged the process, saying it was not open to others. The Klickitat County Commissioners made a pitch for the fact that they did not believe FERC opened the project to other competitors to operate. But if this project cannot make a profit for a big utility, it would never work for a smaller one.

It was certainly implied that not much work has been done in studying the impacts of dam removal, but that's just not true. One heck of a lot of work has been done. There still might be more needed, but clearly a lot of research has gone into this proposal. Now we have to take a look at the draft supplemental study and do an analysis to see what's changed. We'll look at the methods of removal and do consistency analyses on that, and look at downstream impacts. Other agencies have the jurisdiction here: The Washington Department of Ecology and the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife are the two key agencies, and the Army Corps of Engineers would probably be involved as well. If the other agencies say the short-term impacts are outweighed by long-term benefits, we would probably concur with that.


What is the status of the proposed "Rails To Trails" linear park between Lyle and Wahkiacus?


I met with the County Commissioners in late January to talk about that. They had requested an update. That is a Washington State Parks project. It's not Forest Service public land, it's state land. The commissioners raised issues about who owns the railbank, and private property owners have raised issues of liability. They said we're not following due process in planning, and not following the processes they would have preferred. I asked the question directly: I'm confused if you would support the trail or not. If we found a way to mitigate the concerns, would you support the action? And they said yes. Not an overwhelming yes, but yes. At least that was my understanding.

We also have issues with the Yakama tribe. In my view, that's a bigger issue. They felt we did not consult with them about the trail. So possibly for now we would start the trail at Highway 14 and go to Fisher Hill Bridge -- that begins the area where the tribe has concerns. Other areas between Pitt and Klickitat might be workable too. I do plan to begin discussions with the Yakama tribe soon on this.

The state is interested in what the Forest Service is going to do, because the Forest Service is going to manage that corridor. I told State Parks officials that the state needs to come out strongly and assert its right to that land. This is clearly state-owned land under the rail corridor, and the public has a right to be there. Until the state does that, nothing will get accomplished. I'm very sure the state has solid grounds for asserting ownership of that land. We plan to work with the state to maintain the cost of keeping the trail up. It would be a low elevation trail, and would accommodate all uses -- horses, bikes, anything but motorized.


How would you describe your relationship with the Gorge Commission?


I'm really pleased with our ability to work cooperatively together. I work frequently with the executive director on issues. I have a lot of respect for the commission itself. I get paid to be there at the various public meetings, and don't always enjoy what I hear. But the commissioners don't get paid. They are volunteers.

One thing is clear. The people in the Gorge care very much what happens. There are a lot of sides, and a lot of views, and I don't always enjoy the conflict. But it's apparent that people care, and that lends importance to the work we're doing. It's better to work in an environment wherein people care instead of where they don't care.

This is truly an experiment of collaboration, of how lands are managed across a large landscape.


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