Oregon Live: News 2/15/98 -- Sheer preservation
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February 15,1998


Sheer preservation
The Columbia Gorge scenic act has succeeded at
limiting sprawl, but conflict is still part of the
 By Brian T. Meehan of The Oregonian staff


The sprawl of Portland creeps like a great social glacier eastward to the Sandy River and stops. There, truck stops and outlet malls give way to green meadows and cathedrals of fir and stone.

 If not for Congress, the clutter of American development would have jumped the Sandy and spread east, marring the vistas of the Columbia River Gorge.

It hasn't happened because the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area formed a Maginot line against oozing Portland.  

In 1986, Congress created the scenic area, a weird amalgam of land-use rules, resource protection zones Feedback and economic development grants. Like many compromises, the scenic act di(&t make anyone especially happy, but neither did it allow the onslaught of development.

Today, old arguments still howl like the east wind.

Conservationists say the gorge is again threatened. The Washington and Oregon legislatures slashed funding for the Columbia River Gorge Commission, the agency charged by Congress with enforcing the act. Members of the Friends of the Columbia River Gorge, a Portland-based environmental group, say opponents intend to unravel the scenic act by weakening the commission.

 At a symposium in Portland, gorge commissioner Steve McCarthy said the commission has lost its way by ignoring its allies to appease its enemies. He suggested the executive director and several commissioners be replaced.

 At the other extreme, property rights advocates say the commission remains an unbending master that limits the use of private lands. County officials within the scenic area feel disenfranchised. They complain that while the scenic act boosted tourism, it did little to finance increased demands on local services. They say the gorge economy has sputtered.

 "Right now, we are a poor man's national park," says Bev Rowland, chairwoman of the Hood River County commissioners. "Let Congress pay for some of the stuff they have imposed on our little county."

 Discussions about the scenic act leave gorge residents as breathless as a hike up Mount Defiance, the 4,91 0-foot hill towering over the Columbia west of Hood River. Former U.S. Sen. Mark 0. Hatfield, the Oregon Republican who played a vital role in passing the bill, says the scenic act was among the most contentious issues he faced in more than 40 years of public service.

 The law embraces an 85-mile-long ribbon of some of the continent's most amazing landscape. The 10-mile-wide swath straddles the Columbia River and harbors 71 waterfalls and five vegetation zones, from sea-level meadows to alpine forests. The act intends to protect the scenic, cultural and natural resources of the gorge while encouraging economic growth.

 The legislation exempted 13 urban areas - from North Bonneville, Wash., east to The Dalles - and created a 13-member commission. The commission wrote a management plan that guides how the scenic area's 292,615 acres will be used.

 Assessing the act is difficult because of its complexity and uniqueness. The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, one of a handful of agencies that resemble the gorge commission, offers an interesting comparison. The Tahoe agency was established in 1969 to guide growth in the Lake Tahoe basin on the Califomia-Nevada border. Today, the Tahoe planning effort is viewed as a success, but it accomplished almost nothing in its first decade. By comparison, the gorge commission has overachieved.

 "I think it's been phenomenal," says Hatfield.

 Despite lingering arguments, much has been accomplished in I I years. Consider:

The prime gorge vistas have been largely preserved.

 Forty-five pristine natural areas were identified and protected.

 More than 30,000 acres - mostly in Washington -were bought by the federal government, land-banking a rich public legacy.

 A $22 million interpretive center in The Dalles and a $24 million convention center in Skarnania County, Wash., boosted local economies.


Since 1993, only 121 new homes were built outside the urban areas; about 70 percent of those were located on land zoned for residential development. Only 10 new homes were built on high-value farmland or timberland.

 The U.S. Forest Service hatched an innovative $25 million deal to trade 2,950 acres of private timber in the Greenleaf Basin on the Washington side of the gorge for trees logged outside the scenic area. The agency also bought a 353-acre ranch at the mouth of the Klickitat River, near Lyle, Wash., and repaired this eyesore, removing 77 junk cars.

 The act's timing was exquisite: It installed development controls on the eve of a Portland-Vancouver economic boom. Almost overnight, the west gorge faced enormous pressure.

 "I hate to think what could happen out here if it weren't for the act," says Jean McLean, port commissioner for Cascade Locks.

 From Portland, an eastbound motorist on Interstate 84 watches the gorge undress itself. from the dense hemlock of the west gorge; to the thick Douglas fir of Hood River; to the patchy pine-oak woodlands of Rowena and Klickitat; and finally, the open grasslands east of The Dalles.

 In 50 miles, annual precipitation plummets from 75 inches at Bonneville to less than a foot along the golden flanks of the Deschutes Canyon. A motorist must drive for days along the Atlantic seaboard to witness the change in vegetation a gorge traveler sees in a morning.

 But that is like the gorge, North America's only sea-level passage through the Western mountains. Plants range farther east and west along this diverse corridor than anyplace else in the Northwest. The gorge is among the few places where ponderosa pine and juniper grow alongside Oregon white oak and Douglas fir.

The gorge is a botanist's delight. It is home to more than 800 species of wildflowers and shrubs. Some of them -including 15 wildflowers - live no place else.

 The gorge was cut more than 12,000 years ago when the Missoula floods roared down the Columbia River as the last ice age ended. An ice dam near present-day Missoula, Mont., formed and failed more than 50 times over several thousand years. Each time the dam cracked, it unleashed a thousand-foot wall of water that dug 9MDBR7through the scablands of Eastern Washington and sliced basalt at 50 mph.

 The floods' scale was worthy of Moses. More water roared in one Missoula event than flows today in all the rivers of the world. The crest at The Dalles was 1,000 feet; the ancient high water line still is visible in the gorge.

 The landcape is singular. So is the law that has ruled the gorge for 11 years.

 Congress created a unique partnership among the Gorge Commission, the U.S. Forest Service, four tribes and county governments. The commission spent four years developing a 435-page land-use plan that addresses issues from cultural resources to earth-tone colors for new buildings. The act divides the scenic area into three zones:
Special Management Area, 115, 100 acres of the most sensitive lands. These lands, concentrated in the western gorge, are mostly federally owned. They include the Columbia River islands and carry the strictest protections. Land divisions are probibited, and homes cannot be built on parcels of less than 40 acres.

 General Management Area, 149,004 acres, mostly in the east gorge. Private ownership dominates the general area, a mix of farm, residential and forest lands.

 Urban area, 28,511 acres in 13 residential areas. The urban areas are exempt from the act.

 The Gorge Commission enforces the act. For years, it presided directly over land use in all six gorge counties. As the counties adopted land-use ordinances that reflect the management plan, the commission turned zoning back to the counties. The commission still makes land-use decisions for Klickitat County, Wash., however. Klickitat, at the east end of the gorge, has not adopted an ordinance.

The commission draws fire from both sides. Environmentalists say it is too soft; conservative legislators think it is overzealous.

 "The commission adds another layer of bureaucracy," says state Sen. Ted Ferrioli, a Republican whose 28th District covers the Oregon side of the gorge. "It is slow and unresponsive and difficult to work with. People use terms like arrogant."

 The scenic act created a layer of government that was unappreciated. Three counties - Wasco, Klickitat and Hood River - had scenic regulations before the act.

 "We think our ordinance, which we adopted in 1984, did it better," says James F. Azumano, administrator for Hood River County.

 At times, the apparatus of gorge government can be cumbersome. Consider the story of the Hood River County rock pit. For years, the county mined gravel for county roads at a quarry along the old Columbia River Scenic Highway, on the west edge of Hood River.

 Azumano said the county traded the highway right of way for parkland when the state began to renovate the scenic roadway. Later, the Forest Service ruled that the quarry clashed with plans to reopen the Mosier tunnels and create a six-mile trail on the old highway.

 Thus began complex negotiations involving the county, two state agencies, two national forests and the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, the Forest Service unit that manages federal gorge lands.

 After four years, the parties struck a deal. The county would swap its rock pit for forest land owned by the Mount Hood National Forest and the Oregon Department of Forestry. In exchange, the forestry department acquired timberlands from the Winema National Forest in southern Oregon. The Oregon Department of Transportation also agreed to provide 20,000 tons of rock a year to the county.

 There was a hitch. The most likely rock source was a state quarry in Mosier, which had provided material for the construction of 1-84. Mosier residents angrily opposed the 70-acre quarry, located near a grade school and a mobile home park. In November, the Mosier City Council denied the Oregon Department of Transportation's bid to operate the quarry; the state appealed the decision to the Land Use Board of Appeals.

 "They closed up one quarry you can't see and now want to operate one that is next to a grade school," Azumano says.

In Skamania County, Wash., which didn't have zoning before the act, local officials have battled the commission for years.

 "I think what you've got is grim acceptance of the act," says Ed McLamey, a Skamania County commissioner. "We are working within it, but we still don't think it is right. We are living in a situation where there is a layer of government that hasn't been elected by the people."

 "There is a lot of Skamania County people who would like to see the act gone," says Judy Carter, county commissioner.

 Carter is concerned about federal land purchases in her county, which is 80 percent owned by the U.S. government. She worries about the gorge economy, which has a higher unemployment rate and a lower per capita income than the Pacific Northwest region as a whole.

 The gorge economy has grown significantly in 11 years, though it still trails the region. Real estate prices more than doubled in communities such as Hood River and Stevenson, Wash., as the Columbia Gorge became an international destination for wind surfers and other recreationalists. In 1992, for example, the average sale price of a home in Hood River was $85,000. By 1997, the average price in Hood River had climbed 55 percent to $132,048, outgaining the 49 percent growth recorded in the booming metropolitan Portland market.

 The tourism boom has created jobs, although local officials worry employment growth has been uneven and produced mostly lower-paying service jobs. Hood River County, for example, saw a 49 percent jump in jobs between 1986 and 1995 while Wasco County logged a 33 percent jump and Skamania County managed only a 4 percent increase.

 While jobless rates have dropped from the 1980s when unemployment reached 22 percent in Skamania County, the gorge counties still lag in employment. In 1996, the jobless rates in Klickitat and Skarnania counties were 12.4 percent and 11.4 percent respectively, compared with 6.3 percent for the region.

 "We have seen significant job increases in recent years, but wages and salaries have not panned out as expected," said Tamer Kirac, executive director of the Mid-Columbia Economic Development District. "Tourism is not the salvation of the region. The region needs to diversify in small, environmentally friendly manufacturing."

 Kirac thinks an economic report recently released by thecommission does not face up to the lingering problems of unemployment and low per capita income. "The gap is widening," he said, "and unless people grasp this, we will not fix anything."

 Concerns about federal oversight last fall led Skamania County officials to ask Congress to amend the act. The county proposes to shift enforcement from the commission to the counties, an idea that alarms environmentalists.

 "The idea we should turn the gorge over to counties is wrong," says Lauri Aunan, executive director of the Friends of the Columbia Gorge. "That is what we had before the act, and it didn't work.... The opponents have never stopped pushing. Ever since the act passed they've been trying to find ways to get at it."

 The scenic act would not exist without the Friends, a Portland-based group of about 3,000 members.

 Nancy Russell, a co-founder of the Friends, was a driving force behind the law. She thinks the act has worked. "If it were fully enforced, it would work better," she says.

 Russell sees new threats from country estates and soaring recreational use. She thinks more parkland and recreation facilities are needed, particularly in Washington. And she says the counties must be made to live up to the act.

 "I think the counties will have to be held accountable," Russell says. "Before the act, the counties were not enforcing any rules."

 Arthur J. Carroll, area manager for the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, has seen the future of the Forest Service - in his own shop.

 "We think of ourselves as being on the forefront of where the U.S. Forest Service is going," says Carroll, who also sits on the gorge commission.

 Carroll's office hasn't put up a traditional timber sale in I I years, but it has bought lands, developed trails and cut deals to solve problems. His office also surveys building sites for cultural resources and deals with private landowners more often than perhaps any Forest Service unit in the country.

 Critics, however, don't think the agency has moved fast enough.

 Dan Huntington, a Skamania County real estate agent, has pushed the Forest Service to develop recreation sites on the Washington side.

"The Forest Service has done an excellent job in acquiring property," he says. "But they have done a poor job of doing anything with it once they buy it."

 Huntington says the Washington side is an undiscovered wonderland for outdoor enthusiasts. Most hiking trails and waterfalls are on the Oregon shore, where spots like Multnomah Falls draw more than 2 million visitors a year.

 Huntington has lobbied the Forest Service to build a ridgetop trail from Washougal to Stevenson. He even arranged a deal for David L. Cannard, a co-founder of the Friends of the Columbia Gorge, to buy a key parcel on Cape Hom, east of Camas, Wash., that will allow completion of the trail. U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., secured an $8 million appropriation last year to allow the Forest Service to buy several parcels, including the Cape Horn property from Cannard.

 The Forest Service has spent $39.4 million on more than 30,000 acres of private ground in the scenic area. Carroll expects the land-buy program to continue at about $4 million a year during the next few years.

 The program protects key lands and provides relief to property owners. Opponents had warned residents the federal government would kick people off their land if the act passed. But no property has been taken or residents displaced in the act's I I -year history.

 Some residents, such as Howard and Jeannette Johnson, who. live on a 5-acre tract in Klickitat County, have had run-ins with the act.

 The Johnsons moved a mobile home onto their land in 1984, unknowingly violating the county's scenic ordinance, which permitted only double-wide trailers. The couple met with the county and agreed to build an earth-colored enclosure around their trailer.

 The Johnsons later applied to the gorge commission to replace the mobile home with a permanent structure. The commission initially granted the request but changed its mind after it found the Johnsons were illegally living on the site, located in the tightly regulated special management area. Suddenly, the Johnsons were faced with having to move.

 They hired a lawyer and took advantage of a relief valve in the act. This provision, called Section 8(o), allows a landowner in the special management area to sell to the government. If the Forest Service declines to buy after three years, the zoning downgrades to general management, which allows broader use of the property.

Last September, the three-year fuse expired on the Johnson property and the land reverted to general management zoning, a change that will allow the Johnsons to stay.

 The mechanism of the act, however, has not worked as well for Jim and Loretta Ellett. Jim Ellett, 64, a contractor, owns about 370 acres on Oregon's Chenoweth Table, a grassy, undeveloped plateau west of The Dalles. Ellett bought the land in the 1970s when it was zoned rural residential. He planned to develop it later.

 But the scenic act rezoned 230 acres into general management, open space, a designation that essentially eliminates development. Since the Forest Service's land-buy programs are geared toward special management lands, the general management zoning precluded the agency from acquiring the parcel. The Elletts were stuck.

 "It don't seem fair," Ellett said. Ironically, Ellett pledged to donate $200,000 in site preparation work for the construction of the Discovery Center at Crate's Point in The Dalles. He completed the work despite his dispute with the commission.

 Carroll says the act does not provide relief for property owners such as the Elletts whose lands are in the 5,000 acres of general management, open space. He said Congress might have to redraw boundaries to include these lands into special management areas.

 "The gorge act created a lot of tensions," Carroll said. "It also created arenas where people could work things out. The answer isn't just to buy everybody out. Finding common ground is the best solution."

 Before statehood, Wasco County was the largest county in the United States, sprawling over 130,000 square miles and parts of Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. Today, the and county again looms large, providing a model of how to thrive under the scenic act.

 Many Wasco County residents were as unhappy as their neighbors when the act passed. But rather than turn their backs - as Klickitat County did - Wasco County went to work.

 "We took the practical approach and said the act is here, let's take it and do the best job we can of administering terms for our constituency," says John Mabrey, the county judge.

 They raised $15 million, added a county museum wing and turned the Discovery Center into a first-class facility.

They obtained federal grants to renovate the downtown of The Dalles and build a riverfront trail and a new freeway interchange for the Discovery Center.

 Led by former county judge Bill Hulse and Mabrey, Wasco County was the first county to adopt a land-use ordinance consistent with the act. Local officials realized the act would benefit rural parts of the gorge.

 "I feel the act is necessary to keep the gate shut on the west end from that horde in Portland that may want to push out here," says Don Dunn, a lawyer from The Dalles and member of the Gorge Commission. "I have come to realize the pressures from Portland are such it does take a federal law to protect it."

 Brett Wilcox, president of Northwest Aluminum in The Dalles, says tourism will add a third leg to the Wasco County economy of agriculture and manufacturing. He says last spring's opening of the Discovery Center made an impact. "Even this summer you noticed the difference," he says. "There was a wait at local restaurants."

 Mabrey has visions of relocating waterfront grain elevators so the city can build a dock for cruise ships.

 "Scenic bus tours come through the downtown now," he says. "That wouldn't have happened without the scenic act.11

 Mabrey sees problems with the act that need correction. But he also realizes the West has changed and that a national resource like the gorge must be guarded.

 "Yes, we're the West and we're Eastern Oregon," he says. "But we are more and more responsible to our neighbors for what we do and how we do it on our own property. "