Columbia River Gorge balancing act

After 25 years, how are Gorge Scenic Area Act’s goals of preserving the landscape and promoting economic growth in the towns it encompasses working?

By Kathie Durbin, Columbian staff writer

Published:

Updated: July 2, 2011, 4:42 PM

 
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The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act marks its 25th anniversary this year — even as the bistate commission that administers the law struggles to carry on its work in the face of deep budget cuts.

Regular visitors to the Gorge recognize the tasteful dark green signs that announce when they’re entering or leaving the scenic area and signal viewpoints, trailheads, day-use areas, waterfalls and campgrounds. Where the scenic area starts, sprawl stops and nature dominates the landscape.

But most Gorge visitors have only the vaguest understanding of the law President Ronald Reagan signed — reluctantly — in October 1986, setting in motion a bold experiment in federal land use across one of the Northwest’s most dramatic landscapes.

The act drew a boundary around an 83-mile-long swath of the Gorge encompassing 292,630 acres — extending from Washougal to Wishram on the Washington side and from Troutdale to the Deschutes River in Oregon — and put the Forest Service and a new bistate commission in charge of regulating development of rural lands within that boundary.

It set two goals for the new scenic area: Protect scenic views, open space and cultural and natural treasures from development, and encourage compatible economic growth in 13 small towns and cities on both sides of the river.

To prime the pump, the act authorized $5 million in federal funds for a hotel and convention center in Skamania County, and $5 million for a visitor center in The Dalles, Ore. It authorized funding to create a trail along the route of the Historic Columbia River Highway in Oregon and $10 million in economic development assistance to Gorge communities, $5 million for each state. And it guaranteed the four treaty tribes of the Columbia Basin a voice in decisions affecting their traditional lands.

The act stopped most rural development in its tracks.

It also created an instant political backlash, especially in Skamania and Klickitat counties. Washington had no statewide land-use laws then, and little zoning in rural areas. The flag at the Skamania County Courthouse was lowered to half-staff to mark the act’s signing.

The law survived several court challenges in the early years. It has withstood repeated effort by hostile Clark County lawmakers to eliminate funding for the Gorge Commission, a conflict over the nonconforming Bea house that reached the Washington Supreme Court, and appeals of some of the Gorge Commission’s most controversial rulings by both its supporters and its critics.

Twenty-five years later, the act has largely succeeded in containing sprawl. Though more than a thousand houses have been built in the scenic area in that time, to the typical visitor, spectacular Gorge vistas remain largely pristine.

More clearcuts dot private timberland in Skamania and western Klickitat counties, but on the most sensitive sites, the Forest Service has required that loggers use a light touch.

New commercial and industrial development is concentrated in the 13 urban areas designated for economic growth. Although a revised management plan adopted by the commission in 2004 allows wine-tasting rooms, bed and breakfast establishments and other tourist businesses in the rural Gorge, no flashy new gas stations mar the view from Cape Horn.

Thank the Scenic Area Act for all that.

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The western Gorge was poised for a different fate in late 1982, when the new Glenn Jackson Bridge on Interstate 205 opened, connecting Portland’s suburbs to east Vancouver, Camas, Washougal and Skamania County.

Overnight, a riverfront corridor along state Highway 14 through the Gorge became easily accessible to the entire metropolitan area. Though Oregon had been living with statewide land-use laws since the early 1970s, at the time Washington was still wide open for development.

Developers saw a chance to sell property in platted subdivisions in western Skamania County with million-dollar views. In Oregon, there were plans for a golf resort at the mouth of the Sandy River, near Troutdale.

Land-use watchdogs in Portland saw a threat to Crown Point and other scenic icons from unrestricted growth across the river. By 1982, the Trust for Public Land and Portland benefactor Nancy Russell had stepped up to buy private property in Washington, including 20 lots totaling more than 180 acres in western Skamania County.

And the movement was joined to place the Gorge under the federal government’s protection.

Passing a bill took four years of negotiation and compromise. It involved the governors and members of Congress from both states, the Forest Service, major timber companies and other landowners, advocacy groups, including Friends of the Columbia Gorge, and Columbia Basin tribes.

Compromises were forged. One of the major ones: Environmentalists wanted restrictions on private logging in the Gorge to protect scenic views, but in the end only a small portion of forested land is regulated by the Forest Service under the act.

In the years following its passage, the act survived scores of legal challenges. But political challenges were another matter. Clark County legislators, including Sen. Don Benton and then-Reps. Marc Boldt, Tom Mielke and Jim Dunn repeatedly tried to cut the commission’s budget in the Legislature.

The commission’s first management plan, adopted in 1992, spelled out what kinds of development would be allowed in the rural scenic area. The most restrictive standards applied in the special management area, where development would be visible from such viewpoints as Highway 14, Interstate 84, Cape Horn, Crown Point and the Columbia River itself. Standards were less restrictive in the general management area.

“The original commission’s management plan was the high-water mark,” said Michael Lang, conservation director for Friends of the Gorge. “As difficult as it was to take this law without a lot of specifics” and develop an implementation plan, “they did a pretty good job.”

Counties were given a choice: Adopt their own ordinances implementing the management plan or let the Gorge Commission oversee development. Eventually five counties adopted ordinances. The holdout was Klickitat County. To this day, Gorge Commission staff reviews all applications for development in the part of Klickitat County that lies within the scenic area. Because it chose to ignore the law, Klickitat is not eligible to receive economic development money.

The commission has weathered a series of high-stakes controversies over the years. The Bea house case, in which Skamania County landowner Brian Bea violated his county building permit and built a house too large and too visible to comply with the county’s scenic area ordinance, went all the way to the Washington Supreme Court, which ruled in 2001 that the Gorge Commission had exceeded its authority in ordering the house moved.

In a 2003 settlement, Bea agreed to lower the house by 12 feet, plant trees and create a berm to buffer it from viewpoints on the Oregon side. The county and the Gorge Commission paid him $300,000 to drop his lawsuit against them, money he used to alter the house and repair damages it had suffered during the years it sat unfinished.

The controversy made both the Gorge Commission and Skamania County “step back and look at their process,” said Gorge Commissioner Joyce Reinig of Hood River, Ore., the only commissioner who has served on the panel from the beginning. “We developed a triage system. We had so many applications, we had to prioritize those that could present a problem. Both sides were overworked and things fell through the cracks.”

The Bea house controversy also forced Skamania County planners to take the Scenic Area Act seriously, Lang said.

“To our organization, what matters is, the landscape is protected,” he said. “Ultimately, the outcome was, the house had to be redesigned.”

One of the Gorge Commission’s most significant decisions came in April 2008, when at the recommendation of its executive director, Jill Arens, the panel approved a plan amendment that would allow a 245-unit destination resort on the site of the closed Broughton mill complex, a collection of rusting buildings across Highway 14 from a premier windsurfing site on the Washington shore near Underwood.

Lang considers that decision a low point. “It was a negative precedent,” Lang said. “It’s a symbol of just how far the Gorge Commission had moved from its original mission.”

Businesses in nearby Underwood, White Salmon and Bingen worried that a resort with its own retail outlets would compete with their own customers. Friends argued that because a large proportion of the units would be sold and owner-occupied for a part of each year, the development would in effect become a new urban area.

However, Gorge Commissioner Joe Palena, a Clark County appointee, considered Broughton’s proposal “a gift” for the Gorge. Palena, whose third term on the commission expired last week, said he stands by that view. He believes the people attracted to Broughton Landing would be “easy to talk to about what we need to do to protect the environment.”

Broughton Lumber Co. spent big money developing and revising its project plan. But to date, it has not followed up with a permit application, and no development has occurred at the site.

A proposed wind farm just outside the scenic area boundary in Skamania County, also proposed by Broughton, is awaiting approval from a state energy-licensing agency. But with federal and state clean energy credits drying up, it’s unclear how soon the company will go ahead with the project if it gets a green light.

Winners, losers

The Scenic Area Act and economic forces beyond the control of the Forest Service and the Gorge Commission have combined to produce both winners and losers in Gorge towns and cities.

The arrival of a Google server farm in 2006 pumped new energy and hundreds of jobs into The Dalles, Ore., home to a closed aluminum smelter. It’s brought about 200 jobs for employees and subcontractors.

Windsurfing and kite-boarding put Hood River on the international map for water sports beginning in the 1980s, thanks to gusty Gorge winds. Insitu, the manufacturer of unmanned aircraft that is now a subsidiary of Boeing Co., moved its engineering staff from Bingen to Hood River last year. Insitu’s impact on the Gorge is substantial; of its 800 employees, 500 are in the Gorge.

Stevenson, the seat of Skamania County, historically the most timber-dependent Gorge county, has become a bedroom community with a conference center and tourist shops and restaurants.

Bingen, 20 miles east, remains home to one of the Gorge’s few surviving lumber mills, SDS Lumber Co., which was forced to reduce operations to one shift during the depths of the recent recession.

Meanwhile, across the Bridge of the Gods in Oregon, Cascade Locks is struggling to survive.

The town’s attractive waterfront park is home to the Sternwheeler Columbia, but Cascade Locks has no major year-round industry. As jobs have disappeared, its population has declined. It’s lost its high school and will lose its junior high next year.

For seven years, the town has pinned its hopes on a proposal by the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs to build a large casino complex on industrial land owned by the Port of Cascade Locks at the east end of town.

Friends of the Gorge and a local group, No Gorge Casino, fought the proposal, as did the Confederated Tribes of the Grande Ronde, which operates Spirit Mountain Casino, currently the closest tribal gaming center to the Portland metro area.

In 2004, former Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski signed a compact with the tribe agreeing to approve a 500,000-square-foot casino on the site, in exchange for the tribe’s agreement to give the state a conservation easement protecting 175 acres of tribal land east of Hood River and to dedicate a portion of casino revenues to scholarships for Oregon students.

But the tribe ran into delays in getting the Bush administration’s Bureau of Indian Affairs to agree to take the land in trust, and the Obama administration has not yet approved the tribe’s environmental impact statement.

When John Kitzhaber, a firm opponent of off-reservation casinos, was elected to a third term as Oregon governor last year, succeeding Kulongoski, the tribe saw the writing on the wall. It’s now building a new casino on its Central Oregon reservation, along U.S. 26.

Chuck Daughtry, manager of the Port of Cascade Locks, hasn’t given up on the casino, which promised to be the town’s economic salvation.

“There’s still an agreement in place with the Warm Springs,” he said. “We have a compact that’s in place. Until there’s a federal decision, there’s no current state decision pending. At that point we are certain that we will be able to meet with the governor and that he will look at this project in terms of the jobs it creates.”

But Cascade Locks isn’t pinning all its hopes on a new casino. The port is preparing to break ground on a 10,000-square-foot industrial building that will be marketed as an incubator for small businesses at a bargain rate of 40 cents per square foot.

It plans to build a mountain bike trail and is dedicating part of its waterfront for a windsurfing beach.

It’s also supporting a controversial proposal to attract Nestle Water North America with a complex deal under which the city would supply well water to a nearby state fish hatchery, the hatchery would send an equal amount of spring water to the city, and the city would sell the spring water to Nestle.

“It’s good for the fish and it creates jobs,” Daughtry said.

The new Nestle building would double the assessed value of the town to $100 million and bring a million dollars of revenue to Cascade Locks annually. “Our city gets by on $160,000 a year right now,” he said.

A positive force

The Mid-Columbia Economic Development District tracks the economic health of Skamania and Klickitat counties in Washington and Hood River, Wasco and Sherman counties in Oregon. The region’s unemployment rate was 9.2 percent in April. Wasco County, home to The Dalles, “has trended better than the state average for unemployment,” said executive director Amanda Hoey. “It’s thanks to the full diversification of its economy.”

The council has targeted five business sectors for development in the Gorge: technology, renewable energy, wine-growing, arts and culture, and health care information.

The scenic area is a plus in attracting and keeping businesses, Hoey said. “A number are locating here for lifestyle reasons.”

Most longtime observers think the Scenic Area Act has been a positive force in shaping the Gorge economy.

“Organizations have moved here because it’s a great place to live, and they also knew it was not going to end up being overly developed,” said Reinig.

“I think the commission is doing a great job,” agreed Commissioner Harold Abbe of Camas, who is leaving after two terms. “I can uphold that idea by simply asking people to get in the car with me and drive from one end of the scenic area to the other.

“If there’s an issue that’s going to arise in the future, it will be urban boundaries,” he said. “With population growth both in and outside the urban areas, there are going to be pressures to expand.”

Michael Lang of Friends of the Gorge has a less positive assessment of the Gorge Commission’s record. Friends challenged the 2004 management plan revisions in court. “Generally over time (the plan) has been watered down,” he said. “Every revision has weakened it and protected or expanded the uses allowed.”

Art Carroll, who served as Forest Service Scenic Area manager from 1991 to 2000, was asked by a reporter early on how effective he thought the Scenic Area Act would be.

“I remember saying then, ‘It’s premature to consider how well things are going,’” Carroll said. “My notion was, it will probably be 25 years at a minimum when we will all need to stand on a mountain and reflect back on what we see. If we are successful, it’s going to be because of what we don’t see. If we can say it looks exactly like it did 25 years ago, I would say hooray.

“A lot of businesses locate in the Gorge because of the quality of life,” he said. “Where do you think that quality of life comes from?”

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