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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Let’s finally move forward on Gorge Area

Terry Lawhead Special to The Spokesman-Review

I drive all over Eastern Washington for my state job and, let me tell you, our region is one dry place. Water is rare, usually pretty far away and often down deep. Access is pricey and something to fight about.

Water matters to everything about economic development and attractive sustainable communities. Driving around, I think a lot about how the Spokane River transforms all that it touches.

Coming in from the west, you get used to the high, dry, scabland sagebrush country. That is all you see until you drop down Sunset Hill and see the city and the river. Oftentimes the place people visit and first see water is the cluster of falls in Riverfront Park. It provides an undeniable “wow” factor. And if people look downstream, they can just glimpse what many are now calling the Spokane River Gorge Area.

It is a glimpse into Spokane’s past as well as its future.

The Gorge Area was first proposed nearly a century ago, some kind of historical record for persistent planning. The nonprofit Friends of the Falls convened in 1997 to revisit and energize the vision. Local private, public and tribal money and in-kind support as well as state funds have been pulled together through many unique collaborations to conduct a nearly completed, detailed master plan. Dozens of key groups and several hundred people have met for thousands of hours to discuss how to make the gorge a centerpiece for our area communities.

Centerpiece, indeed. It just may be a ground zero of sorts for coming together to celebrate and invest in a source of beauty and sustenance for all residents and to enable us to begin thinking about how everything here is connected by the river.

It’s our great good luck we even still have choices about the Spokane River Gorge Area. Benign and sometimes not so benign neglect has generally been the gift to future generations living along the river. We have one more opportunity.

Usually river experiences begin with an aesthetic, an appreciation of beauty, that leads to other conclusions. I have floated during low water, rafted in high water, and I frequently jog beside it. The Gorge Area has the power and capacity to provide for thousands of people seeking a quick natural getaway or even extreme water sports.

In that vein, I also am aware that the river and Gorge Area have incredible investment opportunities for both private and public returns, jobs and real futures for today’s youth.

My commercialization scenarios are tempered with my gratitude toward the river and a sense of urgency to impose some effective management to preserve and enhance such a vital place.

Right now we don’t have a common way to consider managing the river as it passes through the Gorge Area as cultural resource, economic opportunity and ecological lynchpin. That itself is grounds for some real dialogue in Spokane. If there is to be a shared experience of a shared place – our Spokane-area communities and the river that runs through them – then there needs to be some consensus of values and appreciation.

Younger adults get it. Rebuilding, restoring, renovating, revitalizing — those are going to be their citizen and sometimes career duties. Older people are often at meetings, too, those long-time locals and brand new residents who, for whatever personal reasons, want to participate in generating something good and lasting.

Too many of us are too busy to consider the fate of this priceless entity. Also, our self-interests necessarily vary — capitalism and democracy shuffle forward together clumsily and with terrific arguments. However, a rule of successful communities is that they find commonalities that lift all.

Not that consensus is simple. “Sacred land” does not appear in the language of property law. Abstractions and metaphors of commerce can do a disservice when discussing natural places. Our choice of words to describe what we want from where we live can make a big difference in how we value that place and take action.

Water and its landscapes create unique affinities for people. Jump into history and reflect on your relationship to a very special place to assist in upcoming decisions. Strategic investments are being weighed for the Gorge Area, from kayaking and rafting businesses that serve young and old as well as other recreational pursuits, trails, cultural centers and including some careful development of adjacent lands for businesses and residents. No deals are done, and there is still time for everybody to get to the table — but not unlimited time. Go to

We live on a dry plateau beside an amazing river. That river is under intense scrutiny to best determine how it will continue to provide a multitude of services for us all. Change is coming — upstream, downstream and in the waters under the ground we walk upon. The outcome of the Gorge Area may reveal equally important hopes of citizens and link together even more opportunities for a very livable and prosperous shared future.

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