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Sweeping Changes Approved to Columbia River Gorge Management

The Bonneville Dam and Washington state’s Skamania County are visible from the Oregon side of the Columbia River Gorge near Cascade Locks, Oregon, in 2015.  (Associated Press)
The Bonneville Dam and Washington state’s Skamania County are visible from the Oregon side of the Columbia River Gorge near Cascade Locks, Oregon, in 2015. (Associated Press)
Wire reports

From wire reports

The Columbia River Gorge Commission last week adopted needed revisions to the management plan for the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area to improve protection of this nationally significant landscape.

The plan revisions are the most extensive policy changes since the original management plan was adopted in 1991. The revised plan must be submitted to the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture for concurrence, a process that could take several more months.

The revised plan, adopted on a 9-2 vote, will: require development of a climate action plan; apply strong policies limiting urban expansion; prohibit the destruction of wetlands; double the size of protective stream buffers for critical salmon habitat; improve development standards to protect scenic views; limit new dwellings in forest zones to reduce fire risks; improve standards protecting agricultural lands; expand mining restrictions; and require the development of an equity lens to guide future decision-making.

“Friends of the Columbia Gorge applauds the Gorge Commission and the U.S. Forest Service for updating the gorge protection plan to meet the challenges caused by climate change, dwindling salmon runs, and development pressure,” the group’s conservation director, Michael Lang, said.

“We are thankful to the thousands of citizens, many who reside in the Gorge, for their persistence in advocating for better protections for this national scenic treasure.”

Adopted in 1991, the current management plan has been reviewed once in 29 years, although the law requires it to be reviewed at least once every 10 years. This means many key challenges facing the scenic area today – from climate change impacts to limiting urban expansion – have not been adequately addressed.

Some of the highlights of the revised management plan:

  • Climate: The Gorge commission voted to include a new chapter in the management plan devoted to climate change and require the development of a climate action plan.
  • Salmon: Protective buffers limiting development have been expanded from 100 feet to 200 feet around “cold water refuge” streams for salmon. These streams identified by the federal Environmental Protection Agency include the Sandy River, Hood River and Deschutes River in Oregon, and the Wind River, Little White Salmon River, White Salmon River and Klickitat River in Washington.
  • Wetlands: The destruction of wetlands for development purposes is now prohibited. New development must avoid impacts to wetlands and their buffers.
  • Urban boundary expansion: The National Scenic Area Act only allows minor expansions to urban area boundaries in the 13 designated urban areas in the Gorge. New policies will require regional analysis of buildable urban lands and place hard caps on the amount of land that can be added into urban area boundaries.
  • Forest dwellings: Recognizing the increased frequency and intensity of fires due to climate change, new dwellings in large-scale forest zones will be prohibited to help reduce the risks of fire and protect forests, human lives and property.
  • Agricultural land: To prevent the conversion of agricultural lands to residential uses, stricter standards were adopted for new dwellings in farm land requiring proof of commercial-scale agricultural production prior to approval.
  • Diversity, equity and inclusion: A new chapter was added to the management plan recognizing the history of systemic racism in the region and requiring development of an equity plan to help guide future decisions and ensure a more diverse makeup of the Gorge commission.

The Columbia River Gorge is a place of unparalleled natural beauty with diverse wildlife, endangered salmon runs, five major ecosystems, 800 species of flowering plants and rich cultural traditions.

The National Scenic Area Act – the federal law that protects the bistate region – charged the U.S. Forest Service to protect and enhance federal lands and created the Columbia River Gorge Commission to protect and enhance the nonfederal lands in the 292,000 acres within the scenic area.

These protections were due in no small part to the grassroots efforts of citizens around the Northwest, including those who founded Friends of the Columbia Gorge, to ensure future development in Gorge was responsibly managed.

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.

In 1988, the Gorge commission developed a vision statement to provide a framework for developing the scenic area management plan.

Congress charged the Gorge commission and U.S. Forest Service with reviewing the plan at least every 10 years to determine whether it needs to be revised to better protect scenic, natural, cultural and recreation resources. The original plan was adopted in 1991 and has been reviewed once in 29 years.

The current process to update the plan (Gorge 2020) was launched by the commission in 2016. The public comment period for the plan ended on June 30. Throughout July, the Columbia River Gorge Commission will examine all of the public comments submitted on the proposed, new National Scenic Area Management Plan.

On Aug. 11 and 12, the commission considered the comments submitted by the public and any final edits to the draft plan.

In September, the commission provided a final opportunity for public comment and commission discussion.

On Tuesday, the commission adopted the final revised plan.

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