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Oct. 24, 2020

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Grappling with the Columbia River Gorge

Commission made up of representatives from Washington, Oregon nearing decisions on complicated, diverse, vast landscape

By , Columbian Arts & Features Reporter
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5 Photos
Vista House is seen here at sunrise on the Oregon side of the Columbia River Gorge on Wednesday morning, Aug. 1, 2018. (The Columbian files)
Vista House is seen here at sunrise on the Oregon side of the Columbia River Gorge on Wednesday morning, Aug. 1, 2018. (The Columbian files) Photo Gallery

Thousands of years ago — but not nearly as many thousand as you might think — the unimaginable power of melting glaciers and rushing water tore a long, deep canyon between the landscapes we now call Southwest Washington and Northwest Oregon.

“Ice dams melted and waters bearing enormous ice floes and tons of debris roared out of Lake Missoula,” the late Columbian reporter Kathie Durbin wrote in “Bridging a Great Divide,” her authoritative 2013 book about the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.

“The floods rocketed across the landscape at 65 miles an hour, stripping away soil, rock and trees from every landform in their path. They sculpted the basin repeatedly over a period that ended about 15,000 years ago.”

Humans arrived about 12,000 years ago, Durbin wrote, making the Columbia Plateau and the Gorge one of the longest-inhabited places in the Western hemisphere. Indigenous fishing villages thrived here long before Lewis and Clark arrived in 1804, bringing white pioneers and new economies in their wake. Gorge communities and industries have been growing — or struggling to grow — ever since.

Today, powerful political and economic forces are at odds over how resources, communities and growth in the Gorge should be managed.

Revered by scientists, naturalists, recreational visitors and residents alike, the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area comprises 292,500 acres in Washington and Oregon. The 1986 federal law that created the scenic area also called for a management plan and a bistate commission to coordinate apparently contradictory interests: protecting and enhancing natural resources, especially endangered salmon, while also promoting sustainable economic growth.

“That seems like two competing interests in the same space,” said Robin Grimwade, Clark County’s representative on the 13-member commission. “There is a lot of dialog and a lot of deliberation around that.

“My international experience can help the commission think about different ways communities have tackled those issues — the issues of sustainable urban environments surrounded by phenomenal natural resources,” Grimwade said.

Grimwade lives in Battle Ground and works as a vice president at Columbia Credit Union, but he hails from Australia, where he earned degrees in park and horticultural management. He spent 20 years “promoting a sustainability agenda” for parks, recreation and tourism planning in Australia, he said, including mega-happenings like the 2000 Sydney Olympics. He’s worked with everyone from private businesses to public agencies, small and large, and he’s also a member of the Clark County Planning Commission.

“I think I’m good at seeing the big picture,” Grimwade said. “I can see how the sum of the whole is greater than the individual parts.”

Nowhere is that truer than in the diverse, complicated Columbia River Gorge, he added.

Unlike a national park, the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area is a unique combination of nature and people: wilderness and cities, waterways and industries, urban visitors seeking play and rural residents working to live. The U.S. Forest Service administers the wilder areas while the Gorge Commission and local jurisdictions manage the complicated mixture of other lands and uses.

“The gorge as a whole is not a wilderness area,” said Michael Lang, conservation director for Friends of the Columbia Gorge, an environmental and recreation advocacy group. “Parts of it are that, but there are also towns and cities and a recognition that those communities need to have some kind of sustainable growth, consistent with protecting the environment.

“One view is, those are in conflict,” Lang said. “A different way to look at it is they’re very compatible. You can’t protect the environment without addressing the human aspect and human needs. If you have a sustainable economy, you’re also going to have a healthy environment. The two should fit together.”

An update of the Gorge management plan is years overdue. Earlier this year the Gorge Commission released a wide-ranging update proposal and held a public comment period, which is now closed. Grimwade has read all the comments – hundreds, representing everyone from backpackers to business advocates and hoteliers to hydrologists – and will continue studying the issues until he’s called upon to vote in September, he said.

You can read all the source materials and comments on the Gorge Commission’s website, www.gorgecommission.org. Here’s an overview of key subjects and interest group input.

Recreation

Want to be able to backpack the entire length of the Gorge, round-trip — stopping along the way for wine tasting and a comfy rented room each night?

The long-standing dream of a loop trail traversing both sides of the whole 85-mile length of the Gorge has been included in the management plan update. Commenters including Friends of the Gorge have called for better coordination between trail-building agencies and special protections for the Pacific Crest Trail. Local jurisdictions want better mass transit access, including bus stops or bus parking at trailheads.

The update covers technicalities of everything from scenic impacts of road building and bridge replacement to development standards and rules for tourist accommodations and wine-tasting rooms.

Natural resources

Tributary streams, lakes and wetlands are essential parts of the ecosystem. Endangered salmon traverse the Gorge every year. Is it OK for development to destroy or alter a wetland, if the developer promises to replace it elsewhere?

The existing management plan has allowed it. The update still does — but it shouldn’t, according to Friends of the Gorge, which is seeking to tighten language from “no net loss” of wetlands to “no loss.”

“The standard of ‘no net loss’ is a low bar for restoration, creation and enhancement of water quality, natural drainage and wildlife habitat,” the Friends organization commented. Replacing a destroyed wetland with another one to realize “no net loss” is a nice idea that’s nearly impossible to achieve, Lang said.

“The current system allows for the destruction of wetlands if you say you’ll replace them someplace else,” he said. “The fact is, it’s very difficult to create a wetland. You need long-term monitoring and funding. It’s expensive, it’s complicated. It almost requires a bond. Without that, it falls apart.”

Friends of the Gorge and its green allies also propose expanding no-impact buffers around streams, lakes, ponds and habitats of endangered native species like the Western Pond Turtle.

“Overwhelmingly, the evidence favors larger and more protective buffers, especially for salmon streams,” Lang said. “Bigger buffers provide the cold-water habitat that salmon need to stay alive when it’s hot, like it is now in August.”

Because no change is proposed, there isn’t much public commentary on wetlands restrictions and larger buffers — but lumber companies like SDS, Broughton and Weyerhaeuser have voiced opposition to any new restrictions.

Urban growth

What does “minor” mean? That’s been the major argument between Gorge jurisdictions that want to grow and environmentalists that want them to stop.

The boundaries of 13 urban areas in both states, from The Dalles, Ore. (population 13,000) to Home Valley (population 164), were fixed by the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Act. While development within those areas is exempt from Scenic Act rules, boundary growth is strictly limited.

The Scenic Act says there can be “minor” revisions to city boundaries, Lang said, but there is no definition of exactly what minor means. The Gorge Commission proposed defining “minor” growth as no more than 1 percent of existing urban land, or up to 20 acres, whichever is less. That cap would be absolute, that is, it would place a permanent total limit on how much communities would be allowed to expand. According to the Friends, there remains a tremendous surplus of buildable land within urban boundaries in the Gorge.

Most cities, counties and economic development agencies disagree bitterly, and several voted to oppose the proposed boundary policy after seeking compromise from the Gorge Commission and getting none. Mayor Richard Mays of The Dalles wrote in June that the Gorge Commission’s proposals regarding boundaries “have gone from bad to worse,” and that infinitesimal boundary growth of 1 percent across “all of time” cannot be what Congress had in mind when it passed the Scenic Area Act, Mays wrote.

The Hood River, Ore., Board of County Commissioners said the proposed language “seeks to all but eliminate any reasonable growth.” Wasco County, Ore., commissioners claimed the proposed policy would prevent compliance with Oregon land-use laws and block provision of employment, housing and public services for residents. Increasing density within existing boundaries is not always the answer, it argues.

“We hear from existing employers within our community boundaries that they cannot fill positions because of challenges finding housing in the Columbia River Gorge,” wrote Joan Silver, chair of the Wasco County Economic Development Commission.

In a surprise compromise reached just last week, the Gorge Commission voted unanimously to reject the cap of 1 percent or 20 acres in favor of 2 percent or 50 acres, whichever is less.

Mayor Mays of The Dalles still doubts that that’s enough for The Dalles in decades to come, but it’s better than the original proposal, he told a Gorge environmental news source called “Columbia Insight.”

“This is not what Friends of the Gorge wanted, and it’s not enough acreage for what The Dalles wanted either, but we’re willing to live with it,” Lang said. “It definitely is an improvement to help stop urban sprawl.”

Climate change v. economic vitality

The draft management plan update acknowledges climate change and calls for a new Climate Action Plan, but stops there.

Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, by the numbers

85

miles long, Troutdale to beyond Wishram

4,000

feet deep

292,500

total acres

25,000

wilderness acres

28,000

urban-area acres

13 and 6

cities and counties inside or overlapping with Scenic Area boundaries (Clark County is one)

50+

waterfalls

800

different species of wildflowers

47,000

gallons of spilled oil after an oil train derailed and exploded near the small Gorge town of Mosier, Ore., in 2016

50,000

acres burned by the Eagle Creek fire, sparked by a Vancouver boy with a firework in 2017

2 million

annual visitors

75,000

permanent residents

Sources: U.S. Forest Service, Friends of the Gorge, Natural Resources Defense Council

“Climate change was not in the original plan,” Grimwade said. “It’s been talked about since the late ’80s but it didn’t really get any traction in local communities until five or six years ago.”

Now, he said, reality has raised the issue. “We’re witnessing more significant weather events that highlight the problem of climate change,” he said.

Friends of the Gorge and its allies are calling for a one-year deadline to create the new Climate Action Plan — or the automatic imposition of new restrictions if that deadline is missed.

“We see this as a good start, but we want a specific time line” and a commitment to policy changes based on the best available science, Lang said.

Friends of the Gorge and its allies are urging a host of overlapping measures, including those larger buffers around wetlands and wildlife habitat; preventing or mitigating any conversion of forestland to residential or agricultural use; restricting new residential dwellings in forestlands; and limiting development and transportation of fossil fuels, including by pipelines, in the Gorge.

But fighting climate change seems in direct conflict with the equally broad Scenic Act principle of “economic vitality,” according to several Gorge jurisdictions. Hood River County is home to many tree farms; its community development department argued that “sustainable forest management” is a worthy goal, but treating forests simply as “carbon storage” is not.

Overall, the Gorge Commission “appears to be giving more credence to out-of-area urban users of the Gorge than to people that live and work in the Gorge,” wrote chairman Scott Hege of the Wasco County Board of County Commissioners.

Grimwade said he’s considering time lines and deadlines as well as other mechanisms for making sure the public can see progress happening.

“The key thing is transparency,” he said. “We’re just starting to build a foundation to look at climate change. There are so many technical issues. The commission has a lot of work to do.”

Asked about his own policy leanings, Grimwade said his primary value is building a common vision.

“I’m not extreme left, I’m not extreme right, I probably slide around the middle,” he said with a chuckle. “There are people who’d like to see utopia tomorrow morning, but I don’t know that I can deliver that.” Grimwade said he always tries for a “triple bottom line” of sustainability for any project he undertakes: environmental, economic and social.

“The thing that ultimately connects everyone is the (Gorge) landscape itself,” he said. “People live there because they appreciate its natural beauty and uniqueness. People like to play there for the same reason.

“If it’s damaged or lost, everyone suffers. We need to find a common vision so we can hand over this unique place to the next generation in good condition.”

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