AUGUST 1997

AUGUST 1997 FULL ISSUE

BOOM TIMES: CAN THE COLUMBIA RIVER GORGE SURVIVE THE DEMAND FOR DEVELOPMENT?

By KATHIE DURBIN

For a trip down the road not taken in the Columbia Gorge, turn off Washington's river-hugging Highway 14 to Skamania Landing. In the 1970s, this 98-lot waterfront subdivision near the Washington hamlet of Skamania offered a preview of what developers had in mind for all available private land in the Gorge. A piece of suburbia transplanted to fragile wetlands along the Columbia River's Washington shore, Skamania Landing offers no nature paths, no viewing areas, no public river access. Where herons once stalked the muddy riverbank, tract houses now sit practically on top of each other along a loop road that parallels Highway 14.

In the land rush of the early 1980s, following completion of the Interstate 205 bridge that linked undeveloped lands east of Vancouver, Wash., with Portland's suburbs, several more Skamania County subdivisions were on the drawing boards. Among them: Hidden Harbor, an 83-lot development on 78 acres two miles west of Beacon Rock, the preeminent landmark on the Washington side of the Gorge; Columbia Gorge Riverfront Estates, a 60-acre subdivision visible from Multnomah Falls, Oregon's most-visited natural attraction; and Rim View Estates on cliffs across from Crown Point, arguably the most spectacular viewpoint in the Gorge.  At the time, there were few brakes on the runaway development that threatened to turn the Washington side of the gorge into a sprawling corridor of trailer parks, trophy houses and fast- food franchises.

Skamania County had no county-wide zoning ordinance, and  the concept of "growth management" was foreign to the Washington electorate. "No law - local, state or federal - protects the Gorge from uglification," warned an editorial in the Vancouver, Wash., Columbian, in October 1983.

"Only congressional recognition of the Gorge and its need for protection can prevent the inevitable…”

Congress did act. In 1986, after 70 years of sporadic talk about the need for coordinated protection of the Gorge, and several failed attempts at legislation, it passed a bill establishing the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. The Gorge Act, guided through the congressional maze by Oregon's two Republican U.S. senators, Mark Hatfield and Bob Packwood, drew a rough rectangle around an 83-mile section of the Gorge and placed decisions  on development within chis rectangle in the hands of the U.S. Forest Service and a bi-state commission.

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Paul Koberstein