It was a gorge history class like no other.
As Gorge commissioners prepared to tackle a tough issue, urban area expansion, facilitators on Monday, June 9, first asked them to list significant events that have impacted the gorge.
A relatively short brainstorming session later, the varied experiences and knowledge of the 13-member group were put on impressive display.
Facilitators — who said the level of complexity presented was “jaw-dropping” — organized the flood of input into distinct “chapters.” They started with post-World War II growth, then a 1970s-era of rising awareness of the environmental impacts of that growth, followed by a 1980s and ‘90s era of chaos and turmoil as a host of protective land use rules — including the federal scenic area act the Gorge Commission implements — are put into place, followed by a 2000s era period of increasing acceptance of those rules.
The history lesson is a prelude to work on urban area policy, or deciding how the commission will handle requests to expand the boundaries of the 13 urban areas in the gorge. The Dalles has spent years preparing the groundwork to seek approval for a boundary expansion, and will likely be the commission’s first customer when it begins accepting requests.
Commissioner Keith Chamberlain, representing Skamania County, noted the growth of Portland and Van-Port in World War II was the beginning of a population boom that would soon spill into the gorge — “Portland’s backyard” — for recreation.
Even before World War II, the Columbia River Highway, finished in 1922, first brought visitors to the gorge. The Bonneville Dam, finished in 1938, brought cheap power to the region, and also “threats of development” by Angel’s Rest, said Commissioner Bowen Blair, an Oregon appointee. This, in turn, produced efforts at resource protection.
Work on Interstate 84 finished in 1962, bringing not just Portlanders, but people across the nation, to the gorge. Blair said the few exits off the interstate — as opposed to the more accessible Historic Columbia River Highway — contained growth.
Interstate 84 also cut towns off from the river, said Commissioner Dan Ericksen, an Oregon appointee from The Dalles.
The 1950s were a boom era for The Dalles, with the construction of The Dalles Dam — the “icon” for human impacts in the gorge, commissioners said – doubling the town’s size, and the opening of the aluminum plant in 1959.
The Dalles Dam flooded Celilo Falls, near Wishram, bringing a huge impact to area tribes. “It ended a way of life,” Blair said.
Commissioner Antone Minthorn, a Umatilla tribal leader, said his dad was a civil engineer who helped build the dam, while he has worked to mitigate its impacts on tribes.
The aluminum plant brought “severe pollution,” said Ericksen. “The peach industry in The Dalles disappeared in two years,” he said. Cherries were also severely impacted, he said.
The early 1960s saw the publication of “Silent Spring,” a call to environmental action. The 1970s saw a surge of reforms, including major national environmental laws.
By 1973, in a watershed moment, Oregon passed sweeping landmark land use laws, Ericksen noted. Neighboring Washington, like much of the rest of the country, would lag years behind.
In fact, Chamberlain feels Skamania County’s lack of land use zoning was a major factor in solidifying support for the national scenic area and directly helped in the formation in 1982 of the formidable environmental watchdog group, the Friends of the Columbia Gorge.
Blair, who once headed the Friends, concurred.
The 1974 Boldt decision restored tribal fishing to the Columbia and fishing nets started popping up along riverbanks. Tribes began using their leverage to affect Columbia River policy.
Blair said the push for protection of the gorge started in the early 1900s, in reaction to a popular resort in White Salmon that drew crowds in the 1890s. About every 20 years, he said, another effort was mounted to protect the gorge.
Darren Nichols, executive director of the commission, noted that both Washington and Oregon had their own advisory gorge commissions in the 1950s, long before the federally enacted Gorge Commission, which has regulatory powers, was created in 1986.
In 1975, the opening of I-205 marked the beginning of urban sprawl in the west end of the gorge, followed by the eventual reaction to it, which produced another effort, this time successful, to protect the natural resources of the gorge via the scenic area act.
Commissioners noted the 1986 formation of the scenic area came at a time of unusual regional clout in Washington D.C. —led by Oregon’s Sen. Mark O. Hatfield and Washington’s Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson.
The 1980s saw the gorge economy shift from a resource-based era of rich logging and cheap power (the aluminum plant closed in 2000 when the cheap power ended), to a recreation-based economy fueled first by windsurfing, then windpower and wineries.
Fueled by windsurfing, Hood River went from a sleepy town to a hot spot with skyrocketing housing prices. Other towns, like Stevenson, withered as logging ceased and public land ownership increased.
U.S. Forest Service ownership of land in the gorge more than tripled, from 25,000 acres in 1986 to 80,000 acres today, said Lynn Burditt, area manager of the U.S. Forest Service’s Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area unit. Other governments also acquired tens of thousands of acres of gorge land, Director Nichols said.
Skamania County, with Stevenson as the county seat, was once Washington’s top recipient of timber harvest receipts, “by far,” Burditt said. Spotted owl protections and scenic area land acquisitions brought that to an end.
“They‘re still struggling today,” she said.
By 1992, the commission had created its management plan, a set of land use rules for the gorge. By 1994, five of the six gorge counties had adopted their own ordinances implementing the management plan. Klickitat County has steadfastly declined to adopt an ordinance, but has softened in its opposition to the commission and is now working with it on helping with planning matters in the county.
In the legal arena, a 1951 legal case, Dyer vs. Sims, made it impossible for one state to unilaterally leave a multi-state compact. “It saved our bacon a number of times,” said Commissioner Carl McNew, of Klickitat County.
In the 1990s and 2000s, the commission enjoyed a series of legal successes that solidified its powers and authorities. This — and, frankly, the fact that some firm opponents of the scenic area have died, said Commissioner Jim Middaugh, representing Multnomah County — has led to an era of broader acceptance of the act, commissioners agreed.
But litigation hasn’t ceased by any means. The Forest Service is still implementing changes made to the management plan 10 years ago. Counties haven’t adopted some changes because of ongoing litigation.
In the recession of the late 2000s, just as the commission was taking leadership in a significant effort to track environmental “vital signs,” its funding was twice severely cut. It lost 30 percent of its money and half its staff.
Now, funding is still low, but stable. Also, Ericksen senses a new era of growth as communities work to sustain themselves within the constraints of scenic area rules.