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Mt. Hood Inc. - Just What Is This Mountain's Business?

Mt. Hood Inc.

Mt. Hood is an icon. It’s a place to ski and hike. It’s a challenge for rescue workers and road crews. And it’s a national forest with boatloads of timber and rivers full of drinking water.

As an economic engine, it’s worth many millions. In a series airing all this week, that we’re calling “Mt. Hood, Inc.”, OPB takes a closer look at the mountain’s economic impact.

Rob Manning kicks off our series. He begins with a question.

If Mt. Hood were a business, what business would it be in?

Is it a recreation amusement park? Does it manufacture timber? Is it mostly a water source? Or is it really best imagined as something in the nonprofit sector – a land bank, or a carbon sink, or even a church? 

Rob Manning / OPB
Chuck Burley

Chuck Burley: “Well that’s a really tough question, Rob, I mean you know, these are public lands.”

Chuck Burley used to be a state representative. Now he’s a timber lobbyist.

Chuck Burley: “If you were to going to try to run something like this as a profit center, obviously, you’d be doing things differently. But that’s not the way our public lands are managed – there’s a lot of competing interests, and a lot of competing laws.”

Competing most fiercely with Burley’s timber clients are environmentalists. But Erik Fernandez with Oregon Wild agrees with Burley on one point: that Mt. Hood is not a business.

Erik Fernandez: “How can you put a value on the experience of hiking through a thousand year-old forest, and seeing salmon spawn for the first time, jumping up a waterfall? That’s priceless.”

OK. But if Mt. Hood were a business — just for argument’s sake — what business would it be in? Try it this way: you’re the new CEO of Mt. Hood, Inc., and it’s your job to write a business plan for the mountain — what would you do?

Rob Manning / OPB

The first step might be to look at the corporate portfolio. With Mt. Hood, that means a trip here — to Timberline Lodge.

Alex Ivkin is hefting his snowboard after his one trip to the mountain this year.

Alex Ivkin: “Oh, it was awesome. Today is the most beautiful day.”

Ivkin says easy access to outdoor fun drew him west to Oregon.

Alex Ivkin: “I moved to Portland from Minneapolis three years ago, and that was why. You’ve got Hood, you’ve got the Coast, what else would you need?”.

It’s a similar story for backcountry skiers, Todd Bradley and Matt O’Keefe. They climbed Mt. Hood and descended on skis.

Todd Bradley: “3500 feet of skiing all the way down, and we’re really tired.”

Matt O’Keefe: “With jelly legs.”

Todd Bradley: “With heavy packs, too.”

The punchy Portlanders say there’s no place like Mt. Hood for fun in the snow, especially in the summer.

Todd Bradley: “Not in the Rockies, not in the Sierras.”

Matt O’Keefe: “Yeah, and I actually come from the East Coast, I grew up there. Where I’m used to ‘the weather is the weather wherever you go.’ And so the whole idea to be able to drive a couple hours out of town, simply by just going up higher, to get a whole different weather pattern, it opens up a lot of possibilities to do this kind of stuff, which I think is really valuable. It’s a great thing to have this close to the city.”

Rob Manning / OPB
Dave Horrax

So, there’s obviously an argument to be made that Mt. Hood is in the recreation business.

But explore other parts of the mountain’s portfolio.

Dave Horrax says he likes to hike and camp on Mount Hood. But he says there’s also a place for jobs like his – in the logging industry.

Dave Horrax: “I mean what could be better than cutting a tree on the Mt. Hood, milling it in Molalla, Oregon, and building a house in Wilsonville. I mean it just makes sense.”

Rob Manning / OPB
Dale Phelps

And Dale Phelps with the Forest Service laments that if trees aren’t being logged on Mt. Hood, builders will buy from the competition.

Dale Phelps: “It gets me when I go down to Home Depot, and I buy a two-by-six, and it came from Canada. It just bothers me. I don’t like it. But that does happen.”

Environmental groups argue that it’s a better idea to limit logging, because other aspects — like preserving wildlife habitat and water quality could be compromised. They’d like the CEO of the enterprise we’re calling Mt. Hood Inc. to focus more on wilderness recreation.

Bob Wiggins would also like Mt. Hood’s theoretical CEO to take a look at recreation. But he’s thinking more about ski slopes and hotel rooms, that rely on development. Wiggins runs a venture capital firm called “Mt. Hood Equity Partners.”

Bob Wiggins: “Is this an area that you could have one or more world-class resorts, or a collection of world-class resorts, and if you did that, could there be real estate development around that, that would be an enormous value creator? It’s possible, I just don’t know.”

There is one Portlander who presides over vast private forests for a living.

Matt Donegan is the CEO of Forest Capital Partners. It owns millions of acres across five states. He says the decisions are complex.

Matt Donegan: “There are certain parts of the landscape that are appropriate for commercial activity – whether it might be timber harvesting or real estate development or minerals, or what not – and there are other special resources that are not well-suited.”

So Donegan says that if his land management company somehow wound up as the private owner of Mt. Hood, it would still turn at least some of the land, back to the public.

To us, it’s where all our foods grow. And that’s all sacred to us versus what they’re doing there now…

Suzie Slockish - Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs member

And public ownership suggests another kind of business model — in the nonprofit sector.  Long before Europeans arrived, people looked to the mountain for spiritual as well as material sustenance.

Suzie Slockish is a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs.

Suzie Slockish: “To us, it’s where all our foods grow. And that’s all sacred to us versus what they’re doing there now — they’re making it all for profit, for money and fun, and that destroys the sacredness of the mountain.”

Russ Pascoe: “It’s as important to me to go there, as it is to many people to attend their church on Sunday.”

That’s Russ Pascoe. He agrees with Slockish about the spiritual importance of the mountain. And yet, he commissioned an economic study of the wilderness on the mountain’s north side, five years ago.

He’s with the Cooper Spur Wild and Free Coalition. His group wants to make sure people consider the dollar value of wild places, just as they contemplate the value of timber or real estate.

Russ Pascoe: “There’s definitely an economic value to the surrounding communities, from the smaller ones surrounding the mountain, as well as to the businesses in Portland that deal in the outdoor industry.”

But Pascoe admits that the study just skims the surface of Mt. Hood’s value.

Some environmentalists say that because of the way our economy works, we need to start putting a monetary value on wild places, even if it seems distasteful. Otherwise, those places may be discounted when policymakers look at the bottom line.

Next in our Mt. Hood Inc. series we’ll learn about how many jobs are created on Mt. Hood.