Gorge Management Plan Review
Determining the future of Columbia Gorge protection
Clouds over the Columbia River, seen from Vista House. (photographer: Shaari Cohen)

The Columbia River Gorge is a natural scenic treasure and is protected as a federally designated National Scenic Area. Since 2017, the Columbia River Gorge Commission and the U.S. Forest Service have been in the process of reviewing Gorge protection plans, considering input from stakeholders and the public, and revising the Gorge Management Plan. In June 2020, the Gorge Commission and Forest Service released draft revisions to the Management Plan. In August 2020, the Gorge commissioners reviewed public comments and voted on further revisions. The final draft revision of the Management Plan is expected to be voted on at the Gorge Commission's monthly meeting on Oct. 13, 2020, which is open to the public for online viewing.

Background

As a National Scenic Area, the Gorge is also home to 13 communities, or urban areas, where economic development is intended to occur.

When enacted in 1986, the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act required the development of a Management Plan that ensures the protection and enhancement of scenic, natural, cultural, and recreation resources. The Management Plan also must protect agricultural lands, forest lands, and open spaces. The original Management Plan was adopted in 1991 and has been reviewed only once in 25 years (view current Management Plan), although the law requires it to be reviewed at least once every ten years. Most of the resource protection provisions of the plan are based on inventories, science, and policies that are more than 25 years old.

Many of the issues raised by the public during the last review of the plan were not addressed in subsequent years, and development on sensitive lands within the National Scenic Area continues to march forward under these outdated guidelines.

In 2004, some regulations were weakened to allow more logging on sensitive lands in the Gorge, even on National Forest lands in Special Management Areas, the most heavily protected portions of the National Scenic Area. New mining operations are still allowed in the National Scenic Area. The Gorge’s outstanding geologic features receive no special protection and are exposed to open pit mining.

Native plant communities, including Indigenous First Foods, receive no protection despite tribal treaty rights. Land divisions take place without analysis of cumulative effects to scenic, natural, cultural, and recreation resources.

Proposed changes: A step in the right direction, but much work left to be done

In March 2017, the Columbia River Gorge Commission and U.S. Forest Service closed the scoping period of the Management Plan review. After reviewing all the comments received during the scoping period, the agencies identified which issues should be addressed in the ambitious revision process. Information sessions were held in 2018-19 to discuss progress. On June 1, 2020, the Gorge Commission and Forest Service released their draft revisions to the Management Plan for public comments. After receiving public comments, the commissioners held a work session on Aug. 11-12, 2020, to consider and vote on revisions to the draft plan.

The draft plan included modest improvements to gorge protection standards, but has a long way to go to ensure the future protection of our national scenic treasure. Two areas of management were of particular concern to Friends:

Climate change: After receiving thousands of comments supporting climate action, the Gorge Commission included a new chapter in the draft Management Plan requiring the development of a climate action plan. A majority of Commissioners also supported requiring greater protection of critical “cold water refuge” habitat for salmon to automatically go into place if the climate action plan is not complete within one year. Draft plan revision result: The Gorge Commission voted to require 200-foot buffers on seven “cold water refuge” streams in the General Management Area of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, extending the rule from the Special Management Area to cover a much larger section of the National Scenic Area.

While some Commissioners are raising private property rights concerns, it’s important to remember that Indigenous tribes were the original property owners and their treaties reserve the rights to hunt, fish and gather in their usual and accustomed places. These rights include preserving salmon and their habitat.

Urban sprawl: The National Scenic Area Act prevents urban sprawl by allowing only minor revisions to the 13 urban area boundaries drawn by Congress. Pressed by pro-boundary expansion local officials in The Dalles, the Commission drafted new policies defining “minor revision” as 20 acres or one percent of an urban area and clarifying the Act’s requirements for a regional analysis of urban lands. Friends rejects the antiquated notion that economic growth requires sprawl. Further, there is a large surplus of vacant urban lands in the Gorge that should meet the needs for urban development for many decades to come. Draft plan revision result: Commissioners voted to limit urban area boundary revisions to 20 acres or one percent of the land area of an urban area, whichever is less. Cumulatively over time, any revisions over 50 acres or two percent, whichever is less, are not minor and are prohibited. The 50 acres or two percent rule was a compromise to achieve a passing vote among the commissioners.
 

What happens next

The Gorge Commission is expected to hold a final hearing and a vote to adopt the revised plan at its regular monthly meeting on Oct. 13. The online meetings are open to the public for viewing.
 

Public comments on the draft revised Management Plan