Gifford Pinchot was quoted as saying, “The purpose of conservation: the greatest good to the greatest number of people for the longest time.”
In a world of immediate gratification, the land that has the ability to sustain us indefinitely is often compromised for the economic growth of today. As rivers have been lifelines to all that surrounds them, they have likewise become lifelines to industrial development to which communities often struggle to stand up to. 30 years ago, that struggle was greatly rewarded when President Reagan designated the Columbia River Gorge as a National Scenic Area.
There was a point in time when the Gorge was being marketed as the “Pittsburgh of the West,” with ambitions of having steel plants lining the river banks. Developers thought that the best ways to experience the beauty of the region would be by giant elevators up Mist Falls and a golf course on Angel’s Landing, and the threats of sprawling residential development seemed all too close as the I-205 crossing was built between Vancouver and Portland.
It was ultimately the proposal of several sub-divisions in the Multnomah Falls and Beacon Rock areas that prompted Friends of the Columbia River Gorge (Friends) to be founded in 1980. Conservationists had fought hard to stem previous major developmental ambitions, but it became clear that the Columbia River Gorge needed federal protection to help preserve it from the continuing industrial and development threats.
Nancy Russell was the driving force behind Friends, and ultimately the Gorge in becoming a protected region by being designated as a National Scenic Area in 1986. This marked more than 290,000 acres as federally regulated land. Primarily, this prohibited development in particular areas and created regulations that would discourage suburban sprawl, as well as aiding in protecting scenic properties. Once the designation was approved, Nancy partnered with The Trust for Public Lands (TPL) to work towards acquiring endangered properties in the Gorge through state and federal public land agencies. “Nancy believed that the ultimate protection was public ownership,” said Bowen Blair of TPL.
This also became the case for the White Salmon River and Klickitat River, as motions for their designations as Wild and Scenic rivers were included in the petition for the National Scenic Area Act. While they weren’t facing threats of industrial development, recreation via whitewater rafting and kayaking was a reason for the inclusion of both rivers. Additional outstanding remarkable values on the White Salmon River were its hydrology, fish, a historic Native American site, and the White Salmon River Gorge’s incredible geology and other scenic properties.
The National Scenic Area Act, as well as the Wild and Scenic River designations that went along with it, faced much controversy, and to some extent, still does. Much of that controversy has come from concerns over regulations on private land ownership. The Columbia River Gorge Commission (CRGC), was established by the states of Washington and Oregon, partially to aid in mitigating some of those conflicts with the focus to develop and implement policies that protect the Gorge and it’s resources while promoting growth in existing urban areas.
Some of the major issues that CRGC, Friends, and Columbia River Keeper are taking a stand for today, revolve around the oil transit through the Gorge, particularly following the incident in Moiser this summer.
In short, 16 train cars carrying crude oil derailed in Mosier this past June, right alongside the river, in the heart of the Scenic Area. 4 caught on fire, leaking 42,000 gallons of oil. Oregon Governor, Kate Brown, along with several senators, congressional members, Oregon transportation officials, and many local organizations joined in requesting a halt on oil transportation through the Gorge by rail. Some of these requests came in the form of posing a ban, and some as a request to find a solution to help prevent similar incidents. However, within a month Union Pacific announced that operations would resume as normal, including the transport of crude oil. The major concern with Union Pacific’s reaction without a valid solution is in regards to several fossil fuel terminals that have been proposed along the Columbia River. Long term plans with any of the current proposals would require transport either by rail through the Columbia River Gorge or new pipelines through wilderness areas.
I understand the world’s dependence on oil; we’re seeing a very similar battle currently taking place in Standing Rock. However, this and other battles we have seen throughout history of economic development through industry and exploitation of natural resources trumping the value of something that is treasured and can not be replaced seems to have no end. We live in an area that, while carrying some federal protection making it more difficult to exploit, does not offer complete protection.
Mayor Charlie Hales from Portland has been making a big splash by banning new bulk fossil fuel terminals and renewing Portland’s commitment to climate action and the well being of the Columbia River Gorge. The Columbia River region has also just made a big step this past week when Washington’s Department of Natural Resources rejected a lease that was needed for a major coal terminal proposal in Longview, WA. These triumphs are setting a new standard, and renewed hope for Pinchot’s definition of conservation.
Protecting the areas we treasure and love is not a one time battle. We’re fortunate to have organizations like Friends, CRGC, Columbia Riverkeeper, and more locally Friends of the White Salmon River, who will take a stand in the name of the local communities. However, with the recent rulings in Congress making it easier for federally protected lands to be sold off, we need to put extra thought and care into what our public lands mean to us. If everyone who lives and works here, hikes here, spends an afternoon recreating on the rivers and mountains here, or enjoys a beer from a brewery in the Gorge would make a small stand, we wouldn’t need someone like Nancy Russell to protect the Gorge. If we, as a community which treasures this incredibly unique place, could become an active part of protecting the Gorge’s sustainable future, our resources would be in much better hands.
In our current political climate, we’re extremely fortunate to be celebrating such a monumental anniversary of land and river protection. It might not always be the easiest, or most convenient thing to do at this moment. By taking a little extra care and putting in a bit of work today, we’re helping to preserve these incredible resources to sustain and be appreciated by generations to come.
If you’re looking for a way to get involved, consider attending the next meeting for any of the organizations listed above, or making a donation. Various events, such as the White Salmon River Fest, are held throughout the year to bring communities together and highlight current events within the regions. Follow Wet Planet on Facebook for updates on local events that are both fun and education, or join us for a whitewater rafting trip on one of the rivers in the area, such as the Klickitat River or White Salmon River, this coming spring to see first hand what we’re fighting to protect.
Author Courtney Zink is a part of the Wet Planet guide staff and office team. Her fourth favorite thing about rafting is a tie between midnight runs and sandwiches.
For more information:
-Friends of the Columbia Gorge, Web. https://gorgefriends.org/
-Columbia River Gorge Commission, Web. http://www.gorgecommission.org/
-The Columbia Riverkeeper, Breaking News on Coal Exports. Web. http://columbiariverkeeper.org/top-stories/breaking-news-on-coal-exports/
-Flathead Beacon, Zinke, House GOP approve rules change that would ease Federal Land Transfers. Web. http://flatheadbeacon.com/2017/01/04/zinke-house-gop-approve-rules-change-ease-federal-land-transfers/
-The Oregonian, Union Pacific to resume sending oil trains through Columbia River Gorge. Web. http://www.oregonlive.com/pacific-northwest-news/index.ssf/2016/06/union_pacific_to_resume_sendin.html
-The Oregonian, Battle over Columbia Gorge Nestle water plant heats up as election nears. Web. http://www.oregonlive.com/environment/index.ssf/2016/03/battle_over_columbia_gorge_nes.htm
-American Rivers, White Salmon: Wild Fish and Scenic Whitewater. Web. https://www.americanrivers.org/river/white-salmon-river/
-Friends of the White Salmon, About Us. Web. http://friendsofthewhitesalmon.org/about-us/
-The Trust for Public Land. Web. https://www.tpl.org/
-Columbia River Keeper, Portland Makes History with New Protections from Fossil Fuels. Web.http://columbiariverkeeper.org/blog/portland-makes-history-with-new-protections-from-fossil-fuels/
-Hood River News, Mosier Track Appeals Filed in Wasco County. Web. http://www.hoodrivernews.com/news/2016/dec/17/mosier-track-appeals-filed-wasco-county/
-Friends of the Columbia Gorge, The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. Web. https://gorgefriends.org/about-the-gorge/the-columbia-river-gorge-national-scenic-area.html
-Oregon Natural Desert Association, Wilderness, Wild and Scenic Designations are Important. Web. https://onda.org/pressroom/press-releases/wilderness-wild-and-scenic-designations-are-important
-United States Department of Agriculture, Lower White Salmon: National Wild and Scenic Management Plan. Web. https://www.rivers.gov/documents/plans/white-salmon-plan.pdf
-Columbia River Keeper, Gas Giants: Methanol Terminals, Gas-Fired Power Plants Target the Northwest. Web.http://columbiariverkeeper.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/CRnewsletterFall2016_Issue3_web.pdf