The Columbia River Gorge Commission is deliberating whether to let a lumber company build a 250-unit resort in violation of existing rules against a large-scale development. And Gorge defenders are crying foul.
"The level of political pressure is particularly unusual," says Michael Lang, a spokesman for Friends of the Columbia Gorge. "[Congressman] Brian Baird [D-Wash.] is really pushing this."
Congress and then-President Ronald Reagan created the Gorge Commission by passing the National Scenic Area Act in 1986. The Act gave the commission two tasks: to protect the Gorge and to promote its development.
Now those two tasks are in conflict as struggling timber companies must find new uses for their land and Skamania County, Wash., needs to boost its sluggish economy.
` On Jan. 10, Jill Arens, the commission's executive director, sided with the economic development mandate. She recommended the 13-member commission approve an amendment allowing Broughton Lumber Company to build a resort on a 50-acre inactive mill site it owns on the Washington side of the Gorge. The commission will hold its last public hearing on the matter at the Hood River Best Western Inn at 9 am Feb. 12, and will reach a final decision in March.
Arens calls the issue "very complicated" and says she sided with Broughton because it offered "a reasonable solution that will help the gorge overall."
Nonetheless, the timing of a letter sent Oct. 4 by Baird and U.S. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) encouraging the commission to accept Broughton's development offer raises questions with Friends of the Columbia Gorge and others.
Last Sept. 17 and 20, Baird received $11,000 in contributions from executives with Broughton and SDS Lumber—two Bingen, Wash., companies that share owners and top executives.
Pat Meeks, a Klickitat County Democrat, researched the contribution histories of SDS owner Wally Stevenson as well as SDS president—and Broughton general manager—Jason Spadaro. Meeks, who opposes the development, says she was "extremely surprised" to discover "that a company that has always supported such conservative candidates would suddenly give to a liberal Democrat."
"This isn't the first time I've contributed to a Democratic campaign, nor will it be the last," Spadaro says. "I support individuals based on the policies they vote for, not their party affiliations."
Baird's letter sounded the alarm for Lang and Meeks because they say Baird has a good record otherwise on Gorge issues. Baird, however, says his support for the Broughton Landing Resort is genuine and that it "vastly predates the contributions."
"Here's an opportunity to take an eyesore and turn it into something useful," Baird says.
U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore) differs from his fellow Democrat. "While I have no objection to appropriate economic development in the Gorge," Blumenauer wrote to the commission on Jan. 25, "this proposal appears to me on an unnecessarily large scale and in conflict with the provisions of the act."
While there's little doubt that Baird wants to create the 288 temporary and 60 permanent jobs Broughton Lumber claims the project will create, Lang says economic growth is possible without the amendment.
Lang supports the development of a "rustic resort" that includes cabins and camping on the site. Broughton, Lang believes, intends to build a housing project with "no assurance the public would have access."
Says Arens: "I don't like to predict, but it may well be that we'll end up in court."
Stevenson and Spadaro have given upward of $40,000 to Republican candidates and causes over the past 20 years. Spadaro has never before given to a Democrat; the last Democrat to receive Stevenson's support was then U.S. Rep. Les AuCoin (D-Ore.), who received $1,000 in 1992.