August 31, 2007

River Ruckus


A development in a riparian area directly above Husum Falls appears to violate the buffer required under state shoreline rules and the river's management plan.

Rafters ride Husum Falls on the Lower White Salmon River on Thursday. A five-mile stretch of white water above the falls is part of the 7.7 miles Congress designated as a wild and scenic river in 1986. Top: Signs of development.

Land along the lower White Salmon is in high demand for recreation and retirement homes.

HUSUM - Thrill-seekers wearing blue helmets and life jackets shriek with excitement as their flotilla of rafts plows through the Class 5 rapid at Husum Falls, a 10-foot drop that leaves them soaked and exhilarated on a warm August afternoon.

The falls is the grand finale of a wild five-mile ride on a section of the lower White Salmon River that is legendary for its white water and its rugged, oak-studded canyon. Just 90 minutes from Vancouver, the lower river is seeing a boom in use as windsurfers on the Columbia River investigate other recreational opportunities nearby.

Congress recognized the unique features of the lower river in 1986 when it passed the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act. The act, signed by President Reagan, also designated a 7.7- mile stretch of the White Salmon from BZ Corner to just above Northwestern Lake as a national scenic river that would remain forever free-flowing and buffered by a corridor protecting it from development.

The scenic stretch lies upstream from Condit Dam, which is scheduled for demolition next year.

The designation was unique for another reason: All 1,874 acres in the protected river corridor were in private ownership. The principal landowner was, and remains, SDS Lumber Co., which owns 725 acres in the protected corridor.

SDS initially agreed to exchange that land with the Forest Service for timber land outside the boundary.

"This land exchange is a crucial component of the selected alternative because much of it is contiguous to the river," the Forest Service said in its 1991 management plan for the scenic river section.

But the exchange never happened because the Forest Service never offered land the company considered suitable.

Last year, SDS logged a key area along Spring Creek, a tributary within the scenic area corridor that had been designated in the management plan for a nature trail and picnic area.

"So here we are, 16 years later," said SDS Lumber President Jason Spadaro. "Our agreement to enter into an exchange was not perpetual. We never agreed to not manage our property. We only logged that last year, well after we explored the option of offering it to the Forest Service."

Forest Service 'powerless'

The management plan called for minimum lot sizes of 20 acres along the scenic river corridor, except in the rural centers of Husum and BZ Corner, where lots as small as 10 acres would be allowed.

Now Klickitat County, eager to cash in on the recreation boom occurring along the river, is proposing amending its zoning plan for the Husum-BZ Corner area. The rezone would allow several hundred houses on 2-acre lots to be carved from rural lands along Highway 141 and within the river corridor.

A hearing on the rezone before the Klickitat County Commission is scheduled for Sept. 6 in White Salmon.

The Forest Service registered its concern about the rezone in a letter to Klickitat County Commissioners earlier this month. But Stan Hinatsu, spokesman for the Forest Service's Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area office, said his agency is powerless to stop the rezone because it has no control over the county's land use decisions.

"Because this river is not surrounded by national forest, we have a lot of responsibility but not a lot of teeth," Hinatsu said. "There's not a lot of authority to enforce the guidelines. We really have to work with the county, and we have to rely on the Shoreline Ordinance." The state ordinance requires 200-foot buffers along most of the river's length.

Dennis White, an environmental activist who lives in the Husum area, founded Friends of the White Salmon and spent 30 years fighting to protect the river from dams, logging and development. The signs now popping up between Husum and BZ Corner advertising river frontage property for sale make him wonder what all that effort was for.

He considers the Forest Service defense a cop out.

"The Forest Service has the responsibility to manage this river," he said. "They have full authority under the act. If they make excuses, those are red herrings. They are not proactive in trying to get funding or even to apprise landowners that there is a management plan."

Hinatsu says the only real power Congress gave his agency was the power to buy land or acquire conservation easements from willing sellers along the river, and it did not follow up with funding to allow the Forest Service to do that. "We have some ability to request funding, but we don't control the purse strings. Congress does," he said.

Klickitat County Commissioner Dan Struck, who owns 500 acres in the area slated to be rezoned, says it's not the county's responsibility to make sure its zoning is compatible with the river's scenic designation. "The county doesn't manage the scenic river corridor," Struck said. "That is up to the Forest Service and the Shoreline Management Act."

He's right, White said. "The county is not required under any law to implement wild and scenic river buffers. That's why they were put in federal hands in the first place."

Zoning Klickitat style

The elected Husum-BZ Corner Community Council, which fills the role of a local government in the unincorporated area along the lower river, has been trying for 10 years to amend its zoning plan. One earlier version was appealed by Friends of the Columbia Gorge because it encroached on the national scenic area at its southern end.

The latest plan update says a change is needed because the area's location "increases the potential for tourism and recreation related activities."

"There are currently several thriving white-water rafting companies on the White Salmon River below BZ Corner and plans to improve launch sites will enhance this industry," the plan says. "Local Realtors report that the market for vacation homes has increased in the entire White Salmon River Valley."

In an interview, Jerry Smith, the council's president, said predictions of a land rush in the narrow corridor are overstated. "This is a very narrow corridor we have here," he said. "The terrain here is pretty self-restricting."

A buildable land survey commissioned by the county last year found current zoning likely would be adequate to accommodate a 3 percent growth rate over the next 20 years. A 3 percent growth rate would increase the area's population from 942 to 1,700 and result in the construction of 323 new houses.

But under Klickitat County's unique Resource Land zoning, which already covers 95 percent of the 19,896-acre subarea, far more development is possible over time.

"The Resource Land designation was established in 1982 to allow larger ownerships to do cluster developments," Struck said. Landowners can apply for "resource evaluations" to find out how many residential lots they are allowed to develop on their land. At any given time, about 80 percent of the land evaluated must remain in open space.

Struck has applied for a resource evaluation and has received permission to carve three 3-acre building lots from an 80-acre parcel north of Husum that is zoned as Resource Land. He has recused himself from voting on the Husum-BZ Corner plan.

SDS also has plans to develop some of its land in the corridor. Smith said the company asked the council to rezone about 100 acres of its land for 1-acre lots in the new plan, but the council refused.

"There's an area where we've done some residential development, and we plan to do some more," Spadaro said.

Nearly all of the narrow valley was platted for development back in 1908. The 60 or 70 lots created as part of that Colony Home Subdivision still exist as legal lots and could be developed at any time, Struck said.

For that reason, he said, how the land is zoned may be irrelevant. "It's not really going to change anything in my estimation."

Opposition mobilizes

Environmental groups say the county has failed to address the threats posted by intensive development, from pollution of the river by septic tanks to a severe drawdowns of the aquifer.

"Our attorney is challenging this unbelievable move by Klickitat County to encourage high-density development of the wild and scenic river corridor," said Brent Foster of the environmental group Columbia Riverkeeper. "This project could open the door to 1,000 new homes with no evaluation whatever as to where these homes are going to get water. To spend $20 million to remove Condit Dam and restore the river won't mean much if the upper river is polluted with septic systems and urban runoff from new development."

Just downstream in the city of White Salmon, he notes, officials are searching for a reliable water source this summer because the aquifers feeding the city's wells are not recharging adequately to meet residents' needs.

Traffic is another unresolved issue, especially in summer.

"You have all the boaters using the recreational area at Husum Falls," Foster said. "It's gotten so bad that almost every time I've been up there, they've had a state cop sitting up there with a radar gun."

Friends of the Columbia Gorge and state and federal agencies also have weighed in.

In an April letter to county planning director Curt Dreyer, Bill Weiler, a habitat biologist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said he found it "astonishing" that the county had not consulted with his agency about the rezone and had not identified any impacts on fish or wildlife from intensive development in its environmental analysis.

The area provides habitat for big game and northern spotted owls, among other species, Weiler said. And the plan proposes no extra buffers along fish-bearing streams, "many which will become salmon streams once Condit Dam is removed or fish passage ladders are installed," he wrote.

The analysis makes no mention of the Wild and Scenic River designation and proposes "a marked change in allowable land use" along two miles of the east side of the river, the Forest Service noted in an April letter objecting to the downzoning.

"Here's a river that in the context of the whole Columbia River is extremely important," Foster said. "It's a very cold-water river, it's got good upstream habitat." And once Condit Dam is removed, only Bonneville Dam will stand as a barrier between the river's salmon spawning areas and the Pacific Ocean, he said.

"To remove the dam only to have McMansions built along the river corridor wouldn't make a lot of sense," he said. "Klickitat County is basically thumbing its nose at federal law. It's taking the intent of Congress when it designated the White Salmon as wild and scenic and turning it on its head."

Originally published by KATHIE DURBIN Columbian staff writer.

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