It's not the pristine view that Lewis and Clark observed nearly 200 years ago. Wind surfers zip across the wind-whipped river; barges haul goods to seaports and cars cruise down the freeway. Cities, dams and homes dot the landscape.
But the Columbia Gorge National Scenic
Area is still relatively undeveloped despite its closeness to
Portland. In large part, that's because Congress created this
292,615-acre area in an attempt to freeze development and protect
Since 1986, the Forest Service has
spent $33 million to buy or acquire easements on 31,000 acres of
land, slowing down the growth of hilltop developments and the loss
of farmland and forests that lie along 83 miles of the Columbia
But the Forest Service's efforts are being
"There's been a lot of
good things happening in the gorge, but right now, we are in danger
of letting all that good work slip through our fingers," says Lauri
Aunan, executive director of Friends of the Gorge, an environmental
group. "There is extreme pressure being applied to give away
private lands to developers or not buy any more land anywhere."
County fears a decreased tax
Skamania County, Wash., which flew its flags
at half-mast when the Columbia Gorge was protected by Congress in
1986, is leading the charge. It has called on the Forest Service to
stop buying new land in the county and to seek land exchanges as an
The county's declaration goes on to
instruct the Forest Service to inventory its lands in Skamania
County and "determine which (public) lands can be returned to
private productive lands that provide the county a reasonable tax
The Forest Service's response has been
"We're being silent on the whole
matter," says Ed Medina, lands specialist for the Columbia Gorge
National Scenic Area. "We do understand the county's dilemma, and
we are trying to look at the potential for land exchanges. But as
long as we're getting acquisition money and we have willing
sellers, we are proceeding with acquisitions, whether it be in
Skamania County or elsewhere."
of the Gorge fired off a letter registering opposition to the
county's proposal. "We're saying, "Don't you dare," she says. "The
Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area is of national
importance. The Forest Service's public lands program for the gorge
must be driven by resource protection, not the limited interests of
a single county."
Chuck Cushman's property
rights group originally fought the legislation that created the
gorge as a scenic area - and lost - the only major battle his group
has lost, he says. These days, politically powerful urbanites from
Portland and Vancouver, Wash., tend to support Forest Service
efforts to protect their playground away from the traffic and noise
of the city.
Rural counties see it
"The people from the city think
everything outside of the urban areas should be saved and that
we're not capable of managing growth," observes Al McKee, chairman
of the Skamania County Commission. "We need more of a balanced
McKee says restrictions on
property development in the gorge, combined with federal purchases
of land and a dearth of buildable land, have left Skamania County
with a shrinking tax base for basic services. Timber revenues from
the Gifford-Pinchot National Forest have plummeted, too, he adds,
largely due to spotted owl restrictions.
really scrambling to keep our county running," he
The act creating the gorge scenic area did
set aside $5 million in federal funds to develop Skamania County
Lodge, a convention center and resort, but while unemployment in
Skamania County dropped from more than 20 percent to about 6
percent, McKay says about 60 percent of the county's work force has
to drive elsewhere to work. "I guess we're becoming kind of a
bedroom community," he laments.
A looming issue
in the gorge is that in a couple of years the Forest Service will
be able to spend $40 million to buy private lands within the gorge,
thanks to the full authorization provided for in the act. The gorge
has received more funds than most areas in the nation for land
acquisition because former Sen. Mark Hatfield, R-Ore., now retired,
was a high-ranking member of the Appropriations Committee and
supportive of land-preservation activities in the
With the changing political climate in
Washington, D.C., Aunan is worried. "The only way this act stops
development is through land acquisition," she says. "I can see a
train wreck coming. We're on the road to counties running the show
and gutting the act."
Bowen Blair, Northwest
regional director for the Trust for Public Land, is more
optimistic, perhaps because his group has spent $24 million to buy
about 60 parcels covering some 16,000 acres of private land in the
gorge. The nonprofit group holds onto the parcels until the Forest
Service receives funding from Congress.
provide a brick-by-brick justification for purchasing the
properties, and then we go back to Congress and explain what the
benefits are for the public," Blair says. "We find that we can make
a pretty powerful argument for land acquisition."
Medina says the Trust's partnership in the gorge
has been enormously helpful. "There's all kinds of things they can
do that we could never do," he says. "There are some landowners who
say, "we have to sell our property immediately." And if the land is
on our priority list, we suggest they work with the Trust. It may
take several years for us to get funding to buy the land."
Because public reports on land sales in the
gorge have revealed gaps between the price the government pays for
land and what the Trust paid for the same land, charges have been
made about "profiteering." Skamania County Prosecutor Brad Anderson
pointed out one example in which the Trust received $275,000 from
the government for a property deal, although the group paid
$150,000 for the land.
"I thought that was a
crime," Anderson says.
Blair acknowledged the
price difference raises questions. But the Trust routinely seeks to
make some money from land deals to finance its operations, he says.
"I've been hearing about the charges of profiteering from Skamania
County, but those people are philosophically opposed to us and the
government buying land, so they're probably irritated how
successful we've been."
If, in addition to
selling, a landowner chooses to donate a percentage of a land deal
to TPL, it provides tax benefits and an extra incentive to set
aside lands for conservation purposes. Landowners can write off a
donation to the group as a dollar-for-dollar charitable
contribution, Blair says, and the reduced selling price shrinks the
capital gains tax. That, Blair concludes, is a "win-win situation