Winds blow, waters flow, trees grow, and people driving through the Columbia River Gorge on Interstate 84, well, they go, go and go.
Through it all, the nonprofit Friends of the Columbia Gorge serves as lead conservationist and advocacy group for one of Oregon's most beautiful areas — all 292,000 acres of it. And, now 40 years after its founding, Friends can look back and say it's been a job well done, including helping navigate the 1986 National Scenic Area designation.
"Forty feels pretty good right now, we've accomplished a lot of our goals," said Kevin Gorman, Friends executive director for the past two decades.
"Like with any national scenic area, it's not like a wilderness or national park, it's not locked up and totally protected. It's always a work in progress. It's a mix of private, federal and state land in a variety of uses, and how do you make sure those protections happen in places where people live and recreate and enjoy? You're always going to be working, you're never quite done."
Along with its 40th anniversary, Friends of the Columbia Gorge has stepped forward with rebranding, establishing its first true logo. Gorman hopes it helps with identity, along with the public relations work by Burt Edwards, communications director. The $25,000 in-kind branding and marketing service was done by Portland creative agency Grady Britton, which annually picks a group for pro bono rebranding.
And, while it's fun to be celebrating 40 years and a rebranding, the festivities have been somewhat muted. The gorge has been recovering from the devastating Eagle Creek fire of September 2017, and now it has been hit with restrictions and concern over the COVID-19 pandemic. Some trails are open, and some, like Multnomah Falls, are closed to pedestrians.
Gorge residents would like outsiders to stay home until the pandemic has been contained and more has been learned about the scourge. With that, Friends of the Columbia Gorge has canceled all guided hikes for this summer. Usually it leads about 100 hikes per year.
"We're hoping we can re-up them in the fall," Gorman said. "We want to make sure we're clear of things."
So, hurdles still have to be overcome for Oregonians and others to return to simple enjoyment of the Columbia River Gorge.
Meanwhile, the mission of the Friends group continues. They have helped secure private land for protection, trails and habitat over the years, while leading the fight against oil transport and terminals. Lately, climate change policy has been added to their list of the wants.
The Columbia River Gorge Commission and National Forest Service currently are reviewing their management plan, "and the words climate change or climate resilience are not in the current management plan," Gorman said. He wants to help change that.
For example: There are riparian areas, where streams flow through, with 100-foot buffer zone protections, and "ecologists have taught us that even if you expand the buffer from 100 to 200 feet, you can have pretty significant gains," Gorman said, adding that water quality would improve, water temperature would drop, and fish would do better. "We have several streams in mind."
In the meantime, fire-damaged forest and understory continue to repair themselves. Gorman recently sat at Beacon Rock, looking over at the Eagle Creek area, "where it was 100% mortality." It still looks destroyed, but a closer look shows "amazing" understory growth.
"Honestly, it won't be back to where it was," Gorman said. "It'll go through a new life cycle. There is new forest that comes in after the fire, they're called seral forests, and they are second in biodiversity to an old-growth forest. Plantings are often a monoculture, they happen after logging, and they're going to grow one species. With seral, you'll see young forest shrubs, then alder trees, Douglas fir and silver firs. It'll be different, but it'll truly be a forest in no time at all.
"During the wettest part of the gorge, these trees grow three feet a year; in 20 years, you'll have trees 50 feet tall."
Friends has other visions for the gorge. It's a recreational paradise, but it does suffer from overcrowding at times. Gorman said Friends wants to see dispersal of recreation through a proposed Gorge Towns to Trails program, which would create a loop trail that connects all gorge communities together, "almost what you would see in Europe, day-to-day hiking from one community to another. That would do a lot to move some recreation farther east and to the Washington side. You would add a robust transit system to that, and help reduce congestion and deal with single-occupancy vehicles."
He admitted that "it could take decades to implement, but it's worth fighting for now."
As weather warms and government restrictions loosen, more people will be heading to gorge trails, communities and destinations. A good resource to keep track of trail openings is readysetgorge.com, hosted by the Columbia Gorge Tourism Alliance.
Meanwhile, Friends of the Columbia Gorge now has a more firm identity, thanks to its logo and two-year rebranding project by Grady Britton.
The creative agency's grant program has rebranded companies (mostly nonprofits) for 10 years.
"Friends operates as leaders-in-service to multiple communities — atypical to other conservation nonprofits, as protection of public lands is only one aspect of what they do," said Paige Campbell, Grady Britton president.
"We needed to help Friends understand what themes and insights were a key priority for who they were as an organization, as well as for their various audiences. As leaders not only in the wake of a crisis (the 2017 fire), but for future generations, we sought to enhance the vibrancy and versatility of the organization."
The logo "represents the area the organization serves visually, yet is also versatile and sophisticated. It's more representative of who the organization is and what it stands for than anything they've had in the past. I also think that it uplevels the image of the organization."
Friends also has put out a 40th anniversary video, produced by Holden Films, exploring a Native American family whose history is intertwined with the gorge and evolution of the organization.