Bits 'n' Pieces: Reporter's gift keeps on giving to Gorge

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

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Journalists deal with deadlines every day. But the late Kathie Durbin, who worked at this newspaper from July 1999 until December 2011, beat the deadliest deadline of all.

Durbin was diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer not long after she left The Columbian in order to chase her real dream: a book chronicling the recent history and politics of the Columbia River Gorge.

"Through chemotherapy and radiation she worked on," Durbin's pal Roberta Ulrich writes in the book's foreword. "Even as her strength failed she kept writing. She finished the manuscript working in bed after she was hospitalized. 'That's a real deadline,' she said with the mischievous smile friends knew so well. The next day she entered hospice care and two and half weeks later she died. 'This is my legacy,' she told a friend."

The amazingly tenacious and talented Durbin died at age 68 on March 15, 2013. And now her legacy is available to the public. "Bridging a Great Divide: The Battle for the Columbia River Gorge" will be published in November by Oregon State University Press. ($21.95 in paperback; visit http://osupress.oregonstate.edu.) It's actually her third book -- she also penned "Tree Huggers," considered a definitive history of Northwest forest politics, and "Tsongass," a similar treatment of the Alaskan rain forest.

In her final work, Durbin explores the political forces and popular attitudes that blunted industrial development and sparked the preservation of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. It's interesting to note how today's ongoing cross-river controversy -- with Washington blanching while Oregon pushes ahead with the Columbia River Crossing project -- is nothing new. In the early 20th century it was Oregon legislators and planners who led the way, building a southside freeway and network of state parks that were intended to be compatible with the Gorge landscape; Washington, meanwhile, wanted no part of the project, Durbin writes.

When Washington Governor Roland Hill Hartley rejected the gift of Beacon Rock for a state park, the rock's owners (heirs of Henry J. Biddle) sneakily tried donating the Washington landmark to Oregon instead. That appears to have shamed Washington into accepting the gift, creating at last the first state park on the north side of the Gorge.

Senators and presidents, citizen commissions and forest-industry corporations, tribal interests and railroads, local governments and federal agencies all have tussled to define exactly what Gorge preservation means. Durbin examines the forces at work in distant capitols, and she zooms in to study the controversies and court cases that settled the fates of important Gorge spots like Washougal's Steigerwald Lake, Lyle Point and the Bea House.

Most of all, Durbin's legacy is a view of the Columbia River Gorge as a gift we all have been given. In her introduction, she urges us to go exploring.

"The best way to understand what's been saved and what's been lost in the Columbia River Gorge is to go there," Durbin writes. "As you head out from Troutdale or Washougal, as the distractions of civilization fall away and the basalt walls of the gorge enclose you and you feel the natural world reassert its presence, you too might feel moved to give thanks for this gift."

Bits 'n' Pieces appears Fridays and Saturdays. If you have a story you'd like to share, email bits@columbian.com.