River Land for River People

Protecting the Columbia Gorge

Federal stewardship of the Columbia River Gorge was first proposed in 1916. For the next seven decades the hills reverberated with the sound of angry voices fighting over whether to protect this natural wonder or leave it to private development. Finally, in the fall of 1986, Congress passed the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area Act, designating 292,615 acres--roughly 450 square miles--as federally regulated land.

The Gorge is 85 miles long, a deep divide braced by the Cascade Mountains. Waterfalls plunge from hanging valleys, islands rise in the river, ponderosa pine grows alongside Oregon white oak. There are five vegetation zones, from sea-level meadows to alpine forests and sage-covered deserts. More than 800 species of wildflowers and shrubs grow in the Gorge, including about two dozen species found nowhere else on earth. It is a singular landscape. "But if not for federal legislation," says activist Nancy Russell, a founder of Friends of the Columbia Gorge, "the scenic vistas would be obscured by smokestacks, minimalls, and overgrown subdivisions."

Even before passage of the law, TPL stepped in to protect the unique quality of the Gorge. "In the past 20 years, we've initiated more than 70 different projects in the Gorge. Some, like Lyle Point, are still in the works," explains Sam Hodder, TPL project manager. "So far, we've helped conserve some 16,500 acres of environmentally sensitive land and culturally or recreationally significant sites."

The Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area Act of 1986 advanced by Senator Mark O. Hatfield of Oregon, Senator Slade Gorton of Washington, and other Northwest delegation members passed on the eve of a Northwest economic boom, installing development controls just as Portland, Oregon, and Vancouver, Washington--the two largest cities on the river--were starting to sprawl. The only federal legislation signed by President Ronald Reagan to create new public lands, the law won approval only after a reluctant compromise by conservationists: 13 urban areas were carved out for new industrial and residential development unfettered by federal law. In all, 28,511 acres were exempted from the act. Lyle Point sits squarely within an exempted urban area.

A 13-member Gorge Commission was established and made responsible for enforcing a myriad of land use regulations. In partnership with the U.S. Forest Service, Native American tribes, and county governments, the commission developed a management plan. As counties have adopted ordinances in keeping with the plan, the commission has returned zoning control to local authorities.

Klickitat County--which encompasses Lyle Point--openly fought passage of the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area Act and has so far refused to amend its land use ordinances. "People here resent being told what to do by the federal government, or anybody else," says Dave Elkins, chairman of the Lyle Community Action Council. Driving down Highway 14, Lyle's main street, he waves at his neighbors. "They want a hand in their future."

A Small Town Faces a Choice

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