Thousands of years ago — but not nearly as many thousand as you might think — the unimaginable power of melting glaciers and rushing water tore a long, deep canyon between the landscapes we now call Southwest Washington and Northwest Oregon.
“Ice dams melted and waters bearing enormous ice floes and tons of debris roared out of Lake Missoula,” the late Columbian reporter Kathie Durbin wrote in “Bridging a Great Divide,” her authoritative 2013 book about the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.
“The floods rocketed across the landscape at 65 miles an hour, stripping away soil, rock and trees from every landform in their path. They sculpted the basin repeatedly over a period that ended about 15,000 years ago.”
Humans arrived about 12,000 years ago, Durbin wrote, making the Columbia Plateau and the Gorge one of the longest-inhabited places in the Western hemisphere. Indigenous fishing villages thrived here long before Lewis and Clark arrived in 1804, bringing white pioneers and new economies in their wake. Gorge communities and industries have been growing — or struggling to grow — ever since.
Today, powerful political and economic forces are at odds over how resources, communities and growth in the Gorge should be managed.
Revered by scientists, naturalists, recreational visitors and residents alike, the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area comprises 292,500 acres in Washington and Oregon. The 1986 federal law that created the scenic area also called for a management plan and a bistate commission to coordinate apparently contradictory interests: protecting and enhancing natural resources, especially endangered salmon, while also promoting sustainable economic growth.
“That seems like two competing interests in the same space,” said Robin Grimwade, Clark County’s representative on the 13-member commission. “There is a lot of dialog and a lot of deliberation around that.
“My international experience can help the commission think about different ways communities have tackled those issues — the issues of sustainable urban environments surrounded by phenomenal natural resources,” Grimwade said.
Grimwade lives in Battle Ground and works as a vice president at Columbia Credit Union, but he hails from Australia, where he earned degrees in park and horticultural management. He spent 20 years “promoting a sustainability agenda” for parks, recreation and tourism planning in Australia, he said, including mega-happenings like the 2000 Sydney Olympics. He’s worked with everyone from private businesses to public agencies, small and large, and he’s also a member of the Clark County Planning Commission.
“I think I’m good at seeing the big picture,” Grimwade said. “I can see how the sum of the whole is greater than the individual parts.”
Nowhere is that truer than in the diverse, complicated Columbia River Gorge, he added.
Unlike a national park, the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area is a unique combination of nature and people: wilderness and cities, waterways and industries, urban visitors seeking play and rural residents working to live. The U.S. Forest Service administers the wilder areas while the Gorge Commission and local jurisdictions manage the complicated mixture of other lands and uses.
“The gorge as a whole is not a wilderness area,” said Michael Lang, conservation director for Friends of the Columbia Gorge, an environmental and recreation advocacy group. “Parts of it are that, but there are also towns and cities and a recognition that those communities need to have some kind of sustainable growth, consistent with protecting the environment.
“One view is, those are in conflict,” Lang said. “A different way to look at it is they’re very compatible. You can’t protect the environment without addressing the human aspect and human needs. If you have a sustainable economy, you’re also going to have a healthy environment. The two should fit together.”
An update of the Gorge management plan is years overdue. Earlier this year the Gorge Commission released a wide-ranging update proposal and held a public comment period, which is now closed. Grimwade has read all the comments – hundreds, representing everyone from backpackers to business advocates and hoteliers to hydrologists – and will continue studying the issues until he’s called upon to vote in September, he said.
You can read all the source materials and comments on the Gorge Commission’s website, www.gorgecommission.org. Here’s an overview of key subjects and interest group input.
Want to be able to backpack the entire length of the Gorge, round-trip — stopping along the way for wine tasting and a comfy rented room each night?
The long-standing dream of a loop trail traversing both sides of the whole 85-mile length of the Gorge has been included in the management plan update. Commenters including Friends of the Gorge have called for better coordination between trail-building agencies and special protections for the Pacific Crest Trail. Local jurisdictions want better mass transit access, including bus stops or bus parking at trailheads.
The update covers technicalities of everything from scenic impacts of road building and bridge replacement to development standards and rules for tourist accommodations and wine-tasting rooms.
Tributary streams, lakes and wetlands are essential parts of the ecosystem. Endangered salmon traverse the Gorge every year. Is it OK for development to destroy or alter a wetland, if the developer promises to replace it elsewhere?
The existing management plan has allowed it. The update still does — but it shouldn’t, according to Friends of the Gorge, which is seeking to tighten language from “no net loss” of wetlands to “no loss.”
“The standard of ‘no net loss’ is a low bar for restoration, creation and enhancement of water quality, natural drainage and wildlife habitat,” the Friends organization commented. Replacing a destroyed wetland with another one to realize “no net loss” is a nice idea that’s nearly impossible to achieve, Lang said.
“The current system allows for the destruction of wetlands if you say you’ll replace them someplace else,” he said. “The fact is, it’s very difficult to create a wetland. You need long-term monitoring and funding. It’s expensive, it’s complicated. It almost requires a bond. Without that, it falls apart.”
Friends of the Gorge and its green allies also propose expanding no-impact buffers around streams, lakes, ponds and habitats of endangered native species like the Western Pond Turtle.
“Overwhelmingly, the evidence favors larger and more protective buffers, especially for salmon streams,” Lang said. “Bigger buffers provide the cold-water habitat that salmon need to stay alive when it’s hot, like it is now in August.”
Because no change is proposed, there isn’t much public commentary on wetlands restrictions and larger buffers — but lumber companies like SDS, Broughton and Weyerhaeuser have voiced opposition to any new restrictions.