Where We Live: The Columbia River Gorge


"It's an icon of the Northwest"

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Starting on Tuesday, August 11, a sweeping plan to preserve one of Oregon and Washington’s greatest landmarks takes a major step forward. It’s been decades since rules for managing the Columbia River Gorge were updated. That’s now happening as the group most invested in the future of the Gorge celebrates its 40th anniversary.

Stretching 85 miles long, and up to 4,000 feet deep, the Columbia River Gorge has breathtaking beauty. It’s the only sea-level passage through the Cascade Mountains. It was formed more than 13,000 years ago by the Great Missoula Floods near the end of the Ice Age.

Nancy Russell stands with John Yeon with the Columbia River Gorge in the background in 1980. (Courtesy Photo)

“It’s an icon of the Northwest,” said Michael Lang, Conservation Director of Friends of the Columbia Gorge. In his words, “Well, Friends of the Columbia Gorge is the only group that’s dedicated to protecting, preserving and stewarding the Columbia River Gorge.”

Portlander Nancy Russell founded the “Friends.” In 1980, Russell organized and sought federal protection for the Gorge as it faced development pressures, including the Interstate-205 bridge. She got the support of influential Northwesterners and lobbied in Washington DC.

“Nancy was a big advocate for public lands and making them available for all people,” said Lang.

Six years later, in 1986, the Gorge was designated a National Scenic Area. It was one of the few stand-alone environmental bills President Ronald Reagan ever signed. But, the fight to preserve its beauty continues into the year 2020.

Nancy Russell pictured with George Bush in an undated photo (Courtesy Photo)

The Columbia River Gorge Commission, which balances the interests of stakeholders, including Friends, is updating the 1991 Gorge Management Plan. Concerns include urban sprawl and the impact of climate change on salmon habitat.

“We know the Columbia River is warming. We know warm temperatures kill salmon,” explained Lang.

But, the Gorge and its people, including the ancestors of the original Native Americans, are resilient. It has survived fires, repelled haphazard development, and maintained its splendor–in no small part to the efforts of its Friends.

On August 11-12, 2020, the Columbia River Gorge Commission will consider final amendments to the management plan. They’re expected to adopt it in September. It then goes to the Secretary of Agriculture.

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