In our view: Common Ground

Everyone in Pacific Northwest has a stake in safeguarding the environment

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This being the Pacific Northwest, it’s no surprise that environmental issues often land at the forefront of the news and the forefront of citizens’ concerns. We do, after all, pride ourselves on living in the greenest region of the country.

Because of that, some recent news items caught our eye, serving as reminders of the pristine nature of the landscape and the work that is required to maintain that quality.

One article in The Columbian, for example, was a perfect example of the Tragedy of the Commons. According to the state Department of Natural Resources, a network of rogue hiking trails has been popping up on the Washington side of the Columbia River Gorge. One of those, through the Prindle Mountain area east of Washougal, covered close to six miles, stretching across both state-owned and U.S. Forest Service lands.

Therein lies the tragedy.

First described by ecologist Garrett Hardin in 1968, the Tragedy of the Commons is a dilemma in which multiple individuals, acting independently, diminish the quality of the land for all. For example, if a group of cow herders share a field on which their cows can graze, each individual herder will place his additional cows on the field. After all, he has the right to do so. But in the end, the field becomes unusable for all through overgrazing.

Or consider this: A child picks a leaf from a tree. In itself, the act is inconsequential. But if each child who happens to walk by picks a leaf, soon there will be none left.

This dilemma is applicable in the issue of unapproved trails. By themselves, rogue trails might appear to be innocuous. But add more and more trails, add more and more users, and soon the damage from the trails will diminish the landscape for all.

Such is the tenuous balance between the use of natural resources and the management of them. As much as we like to rail against bureaucracy and governmental interference, unfettered public use will render our natural beauty unusable for all.

Which brings us to another recent news story. Air quality experts have delivered a report that states the quality of air in the Gorge has remained stable in recent years, despite growing population in the surrounding areas.

This, we suppose, is good news. At least we aren’t losing ground in this important battle.

As anybody who frequently drives across the Interstate 205 Bridge can attest, air quality in the Gorge is a significant concern. Some days, we are witness to remarkable vistas of Mount Hood; other days, the mountain is rendered invisible by haze.

Oregon’s only coal-fired plant, a facility in Boardman that is owned by Portland General Electric, is scheduled for closure in 2020. This, according to the report, will enhance the consistency of the air quality in the Gorge. Tight emission standards for autos, ships, locomotives, construction equipment, and residential heating also can ensure the air quality in the region.

“Due to the mix of urban and rural activities in the Gorge, long-term visibility improvements cannot be expected to reach ‘natural conditions,’” the report states.

Nor should they be expected to. The fact is that environmental concerns must be balanced with the needs of a growing population and the importance of commerce. We can’t ignore one side in favor of the other, but we can find common ground.

Which brings us to yet another news story: Health authorities recently warned residents of Eastern Washington about poor air quality brought about by a series of wildfires.

And that points out the crux of the issue when it comes to protecting the environment. Despite the best intentions of humankind, sometimes Mother Nature has the final say.