Still Gorge-ous scenery at 25

Those who worked for years celebrate the ongoing efforts to preserve the view

By Kathie Durbin, Columbian staff writer

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COLUMBIA RIVER GORGE — Atop Cape Horn, Saturday began with drizzle and thick clouds that obscured a dazzling view from the new scenic overlook at its rim. But as the clouds slowly parted, the sun emerged and the day unfolded with a series of ceremonies marking the 25th anniversary of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act.

At ceremonies at Cape Horn and Skamania Lodge, veterans of the protracted battle to win federal protection for the Gorge recalled the struggle. Many invoked the name of the late U.S. Sen. Mark O. Hatfield, the Oregon Republican who went toe-to-toe with President Ronald Reagan on a bill the President had been expected to veto. Hatfield, longtime chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, died last Sunday at age 89.

“When we sent this legislation to the White House, it was with certainty that it would be vetoed,” recalled former U.S. Rep. Don Bonker, who represented Washington’s 3rd Congressional District in 1986 and now serves as a member of the Columbia River Gorge Commission. “That is where Sen. Mark Hatfield intervened. Hatfield made it clear to the White House that should the Scenic Area Act be vetoed, some of the President’s programs would be in jeopardy, including funding for Star Wars. A week later, the National Scenic Area Act was signed into law.”

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., was a House member then, representing part of Portland and its eastern suburbs. He recalled that it was not a “slam dunk” selling the idea of federal protection for the Gorge in the communities of Gresham and Troutdale.

“We knew where we wanted to end up,” Wyden said. “We wanted to put it under protection where no one could despoil it. When it came to pulling all the factions together, Sen. Hatfield was the great reconciler. He always found a way to get people to common ground.”

Gorge Commission Chair Joyce Reinig of Hood River, Ore., read a proclamation from the commission saying Hatfield’s passing “is a timely reminder of his commitment to protect this great resource and for his many accomplishments which have helped to preserve the natural landmarks that we have come to treasure in our two states.”

Skamania County Commissioner Paul Pearce repeated the oft-told story of how the county flew the American flag at half-staff the day after the act was signed into law, on Nov. 17, 1986. Residents of the county had fought fiercely against federal intervention in the development of their rural lands.

“Half of my constituents still think we should (lower the flag),” Pearce said. “But half want to move forward, to find an economic driver for this region.”

Pearce also sounded a warning about deep cuts made by both the Washington and Oregon legislatures in funding for the commission this year. Because of the cuts, staff hours have been reduced, a project to measure changes in the landscape over time has been curtailed, and the commission has no money to hire a director of planning, a key position. The bistate commission is funded almost entirely by the two states.

“There is an assault on the Gorge Commission coming from both states,” Pearce said. “I have had to go to the Legislature the past two sessions and argue that funding for the Gorge Commission is critical. Without the commission, we won’t see plan amendments, economic development or new recreation activities.”

In the morning, close to 200 people braved cool temperatures and drizzle to take part in the dedication of the new Cape Horn Overlook honoring Nancy Russell, the late Portland housewife who founded the advocacy group Friends of the Columbia Gorge, and whose role in purchasing the property along the rim of the Gorge by the Forest Service saved it from being developed as a 16-house subdivision.

“I know you don’t have a great view right now, but we’ve worked on this for 12 years, so the view I have is pretty inspiring,” said Kevin Gorman, executive director of the Friends group. Friends created a land trust and raised $4 million to buy the two rim properties on which houses had been built, including the land on which the overlook now sits. Friends demolished a 5,500-square-foot house on the site and restored the land, then sold the property to the Forest Service.

Dan Harkenrider, Forest Service manager of the national scenic area, recalled Russell’s “doggedness and her refusal to take no for an answer. “

“She interrogated me about what my land ethic was,” he said. They didn’t always agree, he said, “but over the years, I felt fortunate to hear her describe what could be the possibilities.”

Gorman credited the Cape Horn Conservancy and Dan Huntington, a longtime advocate for a Washougal-to-Stevenson trail in the Gorge, for helping make the Forest Service’s new Cape Horn Trail leading to the overlook a reality. “This trail would not be here without Dan Huntington,” he said.

“Twenty-five years ago, this land was destined to become homes for rich people,” Huntington said. “We have protected the rim of the Gorge from the chain saw and the bulldozer.” But he said that large swaths of forest below Cape Horn that are now in public ownership remain off-limits because there is no trail access.

Aubrey Russell, Nancy Russell’s son, who serves as president of the Friends of the Columbia Gorge Land Trust, called the overlook “a fabulous tribute to Mom.”

“She didn’t love memorials, but she would have gotten a great deal of satisfaction to see this overlook,” Russell said. She would have appreciated, he said, that its design was in harmony with the ethic of Samuel Lancaster, who designed Oregon’s Historic Columbia Gorge Highway, “to not mar what God has put here.”

Saturday’s closing ceremony at the Columbia River Gorge Interpretive Center featured a traditional Native American blessing by members of the treaty tribes whose ancestral lands encompass the Columbia River Gorge, and whose treaty rights are protected in the Scenic Area Act.

Chief Davis Washines of the Confederated Tribes of the Yakama led the blessing, which honored the ancestors, Native people living today, and the children “who will continue to take care of what the creator gave us.”

“When our brother the salmon returns, there is a messenger that brings the news, the good tidings,” Washines said.

Those who worked to establish the National Scenic Area “were messengers too,” he said. “Their message was that we need to protect this piece of the earth.”

Kathie Durbin: 360-735-4523 or kathie.durbin@columbian.com.