Economy | Environment | Oregon | Mt. Hood Inc

How Much Is That Mountain In The Window? The Cost Side Of Mt. Hood Inc.

OPB | June 15, 2011 11 p.m. | Updated: March 12, 2013 3:51 p.m. | Mt. Hood, OR

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Mt. Hood Inc.

All week in our series Mt. Hood Inc. we’ve been looking at the economic impact of the mountain in Oregon. 

So far we’ve heard about the benefits the mountain provides to the region.

Now we’re going to look at the cost side of the ledger.  How are we spending public money on the mountain?

 

Even though most of Mt Hood is a lush natural landscape seemingly undisturbed by human hands, that isn’t the whole story.  It costs money to keep the mountain open for business.

And if you’re going to be open for business, you’ve got have a way people can get to your front door.

 

David Nogueras / OPB

It’s springtime and workers with Oregon Department of Transportation are dodging cars and patching potholes on Highway 26.

ODOT maintains the state highways including Highways 26 and 35.  This year alone, the department will spend more than $25 million to maintain those roads. 

Don Hamilton is with ODOT.

Don Hamilton: “All of the mountain passes in Oregon require a terrific amount of attention to make sure that they’re safe.  People are going over those roads all year round. These are the main lifelines between the Willamette Valley and Eastern Oregon and we’ve got to make sure that they’re maintained properly.”

And maintenance is just one kind of cost. The roads also need patrolling.  That job falls on a number of police agencies.

The Oregon State Police covers the most ground on Mt. Hood.  OSP maintains an office at Government Camp that employs four state troopers and one sergeant supervisor.  The cost of employees, benefits and operating expenses is about $450,000 a year.

The counties that include pieces of the Mt. Hood National Forest — that’s primarily Wasco, Clackamas, and Hood River— also patrol on Mt. Hood. But they have other duties that take them off the roads and into the sky. 

Mt Hood is one of the most climbed mountains in the world. And as a video of a helicopter from a search and rescue mission in Clackamas County suggests, that means a lot of lost hikers. 

Jim Strovink is with the Clackamas County Sherriff’s office, the lead agency for search and rescues that occur on the Clackamas side of the mountain.

Eve Epstein / OPB
Rescue workers bring an injured climber to Timberline Lodge for transport to a hospital.

Jim Strovink: “We’re mandated by law that we’ll respond and rescue those people up there.  And we have about one every three days in this county.”

And that adds up to a lot of search and rescue operations.  But if you try to determine the cost of such missions and you’re likely to get lost in the woods yourself.

For one thing Oregon Emergency Management doesn’t keep track of the number of search and rescue operations that take place on the mountain. The agency only tracks those numbers by county.

Cost is another matter.  The sheriff’s office coordinates the missions, but most of the people doing the searching are volunteers.  Anybody who’s been rescued will tell you those volunteer services are invaluable. But the volunteers’ time and expertise doesn’t cost the public any money.

In the most dangerous situations, the Oregon Air National Guard will deploy aircraft.   That can cost up to $12,000 per mission.  But according to spokesman Stephen Bomar, those are flying hours that pilots need to log anyway.

Stephen Bomar: “These pilots are required to do training and going out on these search and rescues is really a win-win situation.  They are able to go out and conduct that training in a real world environment and help our communities.”

It’s much easier to calculate what it costs to maintain Mt. Hood National Forest. The management of the forest comes under the U.S. Forest Service.

I ask spokesman Rick Acosta to walk me though his agency’s budget.

Rick Acosta: “Well for example we have facilities, capital improvement and maintenance, and what that is maintaining some of our administrative units.”

The Mt. Hood National Forest has a yearly budget of about $16 million. It employs 211 regular employees, in 5 offices.  During the summer, the number of employees can grow to 300. But like the sheriffs’ offices, the National Forest also relies heavily on volunteers.

The agency’s budget covers a lot of ground.  There’s money for maintaining roads and trails within the forest.  There’s money for land management planning, and vegetation and watershed management.  There’s wildlife and fisheries habitat management. 

One cost that isn’t included in the budget is the cost of fighting and managing wildfires. Acosta says Congress appropriates those funds at the end of the year.

Rick Acosta: “Last year for example we had about 3 major project fires the View Lake Fire, the Bull of the Woods Fire, and the Pyramid Butte Fire, as well as 56 individual quarter acre to several acre fires.”

The bill for those fires came to about $8 million.

Acosta says public money spent in the forest adds value to the economic engine we’re calling Mt. Hood Inc.  In some ways you can calculate that value.  He says the National Forest receives about 4.5 million visitors each year.  He points to a study that showed those visitors spend anywhere between $52 to $200 plus per group.

But he also says some of that value you can’t calculate.  He thinks back to a summer canoe trip he took many years ago with his daughter.

Rick Acosta: “She’s 29 now but back then she was 8.  And she told me that that was the best day of her life, canoeing around Trillium Lake.  And so, you know that you can’t measure in terms of dollar signs”.

Most of the costs associated with Mt. Hood are spent so people can access, enjoy or preserve the mountain.

An eight-year-old girl on a canoe trip might not know about the millions of dollars spent on the mountain. But it’s reasonable to think anybody who just had the best day of her life, might find it well worth the cost.

 

In our next story about Mt. Hood Inc. we’ll explore the value of the mountain’s brand.

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