River Land for River People

A Small Town Faces a Choice

A rural, unincorporated community of 1,200 people, Lyle has little to offer but location. The town has a gas station, cafe, mercantile, tavern, post office, and a historic hotel that's only open in summer. There is a high school, but the elementary school is closed now and the children are bused upriver. Most of the adults here grew up in an era when property owners could do whatever they wanted with their land; many lost their jobs when that began to change. Today the Gorge has a higher unemployment rate and lower per capita income than the Pacific Northwest region as a whole, reflecting a steady decline in fishing, logging, and mining. In Klickitat County the jobless rate approaches 16 percent, and the average worker earns just over $17,000 a year.

The paucity of jobs is obvious in Lyle, where the major employers are the high school and the post office. Like the paint peeling off the houses, the town appears to be peeling off the hills. "People are worried about jobs," Elkins says from behind the wheel of his pickup. "And they're worried about their families, about their kids having no choice but to leave the area to find work."

Although just 3 percent of the county's 1,900 square miles is federally owned, county officials argue that if more private land becomes public, economic growth could be permanently stifled. "When development is limited, we must be very careful about further restricting opportunities," says Tom Seifert, head of Klickitat County Resource Development and Community Enhancement. "And I've no doubt that local business would have been helped by an expanded, more affluent resident population."

Lyle residents have not opposed the construction of a subdivision. But neither have they embraced developers' plans for a gated enclave obstructing access to the river. "This is a pretty tight-knit community. People pull together here--nobody wants that to change," Elkins asserts.

"People kind of like Lyle the way it is," he continues, turning his pickup through the half-open gate at the point. "If the town could get a facelift and maybe a park--someplace where the kids could play--folks would be happy.

Stopping near the river's edge, Elkins leans out his window to watch a golden eagle soaring on the wind. Another winter storm is blowing in, threatening more rain. "If the Trust for Public Land can figure out a way to conserve the property, I think people would be real supportive," Elkins says, easing his truck into gear. "Truth is, the Columbia is about the only reason Lyle is here. It's been within walking distance for more than a century, and folks don't like the idea of losing access now. I guess you could say, we're 'river people' too."

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