PROTESTS OVER UNDER CANVAS

Locals in the western part of Klicktat County are protesting a proposed development by the company Under Canvas.

Travel along Oak Ridge Road off Highway 141 in Husum, and you’ll get the message. Signs reading “Under Canvas NOT WELCOME” line the wooded terrain for miles along this quiet neighborhood of farms and forest.

Marlene and Thomas Woodward live and work on Oak Ridge, where they have tended its namesake 15-acre Oak Ridge Vineyard for 25 years. Their property produces 40 tons of organically-grown grapes annually for local wineries, and adjoins a 120-acre parcel where upscale glamping company Under Canvas has proposed a 90-tent luxury outdoor lodging development.

“They call it a campground, but it’s really a resort,” says Woodward. “Think half the size of Skamania Lodge, with no infrastructure to support it.”

Under Canvas submitted a Conditional Use Permit for review by the Klickitat County Board of Commissioners on July 31; a decision is due at the end of August.

For those unfamiliar, “glamping” is a billion-dollar industry in the U.S., offering an upscale approach to outdoor camping that provides amenities like beds, electricity, and indoor plumbing — luxuries not ordinarily associated with the great outdoors. The land is zoned for agriculture and forestry and accessible only by unpaved road, which is not scheduled for upgrades until 2025. County officials will determine whether an exception should be made to accommodate this development, but many residents have already made up their minds.

Notice of the proposed development was mailed via informational flyer to area residents in May. Richard Foster with Klickitat County Economic Development facilitated an introduction to the Husum/BZ Community Council, where the company presented on the project via Zoom meeting in June and July. Meetings were attended by approximately 25 to 30 concerned neighbors, who overwhelmingly rejected the proposal. Concerns cited include elevated fire danger from the addition of 300-plus guests in an already underserved district, and increased traffic estimated at over 500 trips per day in peak season, April through October. Of the 20 letters to Council provided to The Sentinel, only one was in favor of the facility.

“Fire risk will go from moderate to severe with the introduction of this resort,” says Woodward. A blaze, he clarifies, “doesn’t take willful or intentional negligence. Even if we are spared, the impacts of smoke mean that we lose as farmers, wineries can’t make wine, and customers lose, too.”

Under Canvas Chief Development Officer Daniel McBreaty reports that there is no history of fire at any of their camps since 2009. “We obey all fire bans, we don’t light our outdoor fires if there’s ban on the use of wood heaters. We are taking mitigation measures,” he says. The company reports it has been working closely with leadership in Fire District 3 through the proposal process.

According to their website, Under Canvas aims to “protect our environment, and minimize our impact on our most precious commodity: the great outdoors.” They operate seven facilities across the United States, most sited in the vicinity of national parks and monuments, including Yellowstone, Glacier, and the Grand Canyon. These sites have access to major roads and other amenities that easily accommodate the carrying capacity needed for a development of this size. In response to concerns that the project would cause undue burden to taxpayers, McBreaty says that the company contributes its share as a commercial property, and they develop self-contained well water and septics that will not be a burden to municipal systems. “Our camp will be vetted through the SEPA process,” McBreaty says, referring to the State Environmental Policy Act, environmental standards to which the company’s application will be held.

Informational brochures tout the benefit of “Jobs for the Community”— 40 to 60 mostly seasonal, entry-level service positions. Company co-founder Sarah Dusek is quoted in Forbes magazine on their labor practices: “Americans don’t generally want to do manual labor and housekeeping jobs,” she says, explaining that much of their recruitment is among college students and international workers. Under Canvas Human Resources did not confirm that employees are paid a living wage, but do extend “competitive wages and comprehensive benefits programs,” including free on-site housing during the season which is factored into the compensation package—a perk perhaps less relevant to existing community members.

 

It is not that residents are opposed to development outright, nor the siting of an Under Canvas facility in the region, but many feel this specific location is inappropriate for the project. “Approval of a Conditional Use permit for this Resort will set a precedent for unrestricted commercial development along the eastern bank of the White Salmon River,” says Woodward in a letter to the Council. Another neighbor, Steve Stampfli, issued the following warning in a letter to Under Canvas corporate leadership: “Timber, cattle, orchards, and crops are our county’s economic and lifestyle mainstays, and many of us feel it very unwise to trigger the irreversible trend toward conversion to less sustainable, and perhaps somewhat frivolous uses, such as glamor tourism.”

Beyond concern about the project itself, community members have raised questions about the manner it has been represented to neighbors by Council leadership. Nate Bell, Husum/BZ Community Council Chair, clarifies that the Council is not a legislative body. “Council does not take a position on the appropriateness, consistency, desirability, etc. of specific projects. We simply provide a forum for information and a conduit through which community members can promote community activities.”

His colleague, Justin Bousquet, who has served on the Council for a year and a half, worries that the forum is not serving its intended purpose. “I am concerned with the appearance of bias and unfairness applied at recent meetings,” Bosquet said in a statement submitted to The Sentinel. “There have been instances where citizens have been cut off while voicing their opinions and then criticized for their tone. I feel that citizens should have the same time and opportunity to voice their opinions as the people pushing a potential development onto the community.”

Others note a potential conflict of interest among Council leadership. Ryan Kreps, who owns White Salmon-based internet company Radcomp and is current Council vice-chair. In comment to The Sentinel, he clarified that he “doesn’t think anybody has any financial gain. I might be able to sell them internet for $50 a month, but it is not a huge deal.” Kreps took Under Canvas up on their invitation to visit the facility at Glacier, which he found “impressive”—but he was clear that the voice of community, and ultimately the Board of Adjustment, that should prevail.

Jacob Anderson is a Klickitat County employee and is also an elected member of the Husum/BZ Community Council. Sheri Bousquet of Husum has questioned the implications for the Appearance of Fairness doctrine, outlined in Registered Code of Washington 42.36.040, “Regarding public discussion by candidate for public office.” Anderson is also running for County Commissioner Position 1. In her opinion, “Jake has used the community council meetings to grossly promote Under Canvas as well as to silence citizens when voicing their opposition to the proposed development.”

Anderson can understand the confusion. “I wear a few hats and have to be very careful about which one I put on and when. As a county employee, I have not endorsed this project. As a county planning commissioner, I have not endorsed this project. Nor personally have I endorsed this project in any way. In fact, I’ve gone out of my way to remain neutral to the project in all aspects,” he clarifies in comment to The Sentinel. “Because of the timing, I have to be very careful due to the possibility and would recuse myself [if I become a commissioner] from voting on the project, if it ever got to that point because I was involved with it while wearing other hats.”

Under Canvas has faced strong community outcry elsewhere and has withdrawn permit applications in Sedona, Arizona, and Teton Valley, Idaho, as recently as February of 2020. McBreaty says that corporate decision-making happens on a case-by-case basis. “As with any development process, you go through a number of steps when you look at a market—some of it is looking at the permissibility, codes, and so forth, some based on the economics of a market,” he says. “There are any number of reasons that you might step away.”

The company claims it has no existing business relationships or financial ties to the region. They were drawn to the area for the unique constellation of outdoor recreation opportunities, great winery and agriculture, and sheer natural beauty. Says May Lilley, Under Canvas Chief Development Officer, “Our mission is to be highly collaborative, and we really welcome the opportunity to share our story. There is sometimes the misinterpretation of what we’re about”—a mission, she clarifies, that hopes to “democratize nature.”

Thirty of the 120 acres slated for development are within the Wild and Scenic designation; Under Canvas reports they do not plan to build on that portion of the land and are in discussion with the U.S. Forest Service to donate those acres to the agency, enabling their better stewardship of the corridor.