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Bridging a Great Divide

The Battle for the Columbia River Gorge

Kathie Durbin

Publication Year: 2013

In 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act, setting into motion one of the great land-use experiments of modern times. The act struck a compromise between protection for one of the West’s most stunning landscapes—the majestic Gorge carved by Ice Age floods, which today divides Washington and Oregon—and encouragement of compatible economic development in communities on both sides of the river.

In Bridging a Great Divide, award-winning environmental journalist Kathie Durbin draws on interviews, correspondence, and extensive research to tell the story of the major shifts in the Gorge since the Act’s passage. Sweeping change has altered the Gorge’s landscape: upscale tourism and outdoor recreation, gentrification, the end of logging in national forests, the closing of aluminum plants, wind farms, and a population explosion in the metropolitan area to its west. Yet, to the casual observer, the Gorge looks much the same as it did twenty-five years ago.

How can we measure the success of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act? In this insightful and revealing history, Durbin suggests that the answer depends on who you are: a small business owner, an environmental watchdog group, a chamber of commerce. The story of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area is the story of the Pacific Northwest in microcosm, as the region shifts from a natural-resource-based economy to one based on recreation, technology, and quality of life.

Published by: Oregon State University Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. 1-4


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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-x

I have just returned from a hike in the Columbia Gorge and it reminded me how much we owe Kathie Durbin for giving us the story of how this magical place was preserved—and how the battle to keep it continues. Wildflower blossoms glistened through raindrops; I didn’t know the flowers’ names but Kathie would have. ...

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pp. xi-xiv

This book was born quietly and obscurely, on one of the many reporting trips I made through the Columbia River Gorge between 1999 and 2013. I didn’t jot down the specific date when I committed to writing the book. It happened at one of those moments when everything—the great impounded river itself, ...

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Introduction: The Gift in Our Back Yard

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pp. 1-10

The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area begins where Portland’s eastern suburbs end. It’s a gift bestowed by nature and protected by far-sighted, public-spirited people beginning in the early years of the twentieth century. ...

Part I: The Vision

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pp. 11-12

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Chapter 1: Hardly Wilderness

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pp. 13-21

Imagine no dams, no train whistles, no freeway traffic roar—only the roar of a free-flowing river, as loud as one hundred freight trains, booming and crashing through the basalt chasm of the Columbia River Gorge. Imagine a young Indian sitting on a ledge above the river through seven sunrises and seven sunsets, singing and chanting ...

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Chapter 2: The Watchdogs

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pp. 22-43

Samuel Lancaster, the father of Oregon’s highway system, understood that the Columbia River Gorge deserved a highway to match its majesty. “The mind can only wonder at this mighty work of God, done in His own way, on a scale so great that man’s best efforts appear but as the work of pygmies,” Lancaster famously observed. ...

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Chapter 3: Saving Steigerwald

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pp. 44-50

Wilson and Susan Cady bought their property at the top of Belle Center Road in 1972. Their seven-and-a-half acres, just inside the Skamania County line, sit at an elevation of 1,200 feet, with unbroken forest above. Deer, bobcats, and birds of every description inhabit the secluded property. ...

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Chapter 4: Balancing Act

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pp. 51-72

The year 1981 was an inauspicious time to launch a major national conservation initiative. Republican Ronald Reagan had just defeated President Jimmy Carter, ushering in an era of environmental retrenchment. As a 1966 candidate for governor of California, Reagan had telegraphed his view of forest preservation with a widely quoted paraphrased quip, ...

Part II: The Launch

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pp. 73-74

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Chapter 5: Writing the Rules

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pp. 75-96

The job of launching the new Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area fell to the U.S. Forest Service. It was not a task for the faint-hearted. In early December 1986, days after the act was signed into law, Forest Service Chief Max Peterson visited Portland. ...

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Chapter 6: Early Friction

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pp. 97-111

By 1992, the first Columbia River Gorge Commission had completed four years of hard work on the Scenic Area Management Plan and the U.S. Department of Agriculture had signed off on the plan. Executive Director Richard Benner left to accept a job as director of the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development. ...

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Chapter 7: The Too-Tall House

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pp. 112-126

On the morning of June 19, 1998, Gorge Commission planner Allen Bell and Forest Service landscape architect Jurgen Hess were leading a tour of the National Scenic Area for county officials when they stopped at Dalton Point on the Oregon side, near Multnomah Falls. ...

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Chapter 8: Fear and Loathing

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pp. 127-134

By 2000, Klickitat County was engaged in open warfare with the Columbia River Gorge Commission. Commissioners in the long, skinny rural county, populated by just 19,300 people, had refused to adopt their own Scenic Area ordinance. ...

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Chapter 9: Land Rush

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pp. 135-142

For more than a decade after passage of the Scenic Area Act, money flowed steadily from Congress to the Forest Service, allowing managers to buy gorge property from willing sellers who could not develop their property under the new management plan. ...

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Chapter 10: Oregon Pushback

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pp. 143-148

Martha Bennett was flipping through a newspaper in 2001 when she saw a notice that the Columbia River Gorge Commission was looking for a new executive director. Bennett had a graduate degree in public policy from the University of California at Berkeley. ...

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Chapter 11: A Pile of Rocks

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pp. 149-154

The rock mounds scattered among pines and oaks captured Susan Johnson’s imagination when she first walked the five-acre property near Underwood in the mid-Columbia Gorge. Moss-covered and mysterious, they rose in piles up to six feet high and 20 feet across. Ferns and flowers grew up amid the boulders. ...

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Chapter 12: Time to Amend

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pp. 155-166

At the end of 2002, a daunting new task loomed for Martha Bennett and the Gorge Commission. The Scenic Area Act required the commission to review the 1992 management plan after a decade and consider whether amendments were required. That process already was behind schedule. ...

Part III: Great Debates

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pp. 167-168

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Chapter 13: Showdown at Lyle Point

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pp. 169-175

It’s easy to fall in love with Lyle, Washington: its scattering of historic houses, its vintage hotel, its setting at the mouth of the Klickitat River in the rugged mid-gorge. Few visitors passing through are aware that in the early 1990s, a spit of land at Lyle became the site of one of a heated conflict over protection of cultural resources in the gorge— ...

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Chapter 14: A Destination Resort

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pp. 176-187

The view from a granite outcrop above the 60-acre Broughton Lumber Company mill site near Underwood takes in several derelict mill buildings, a world-famous windsurfing beach and the town of Hood River, Oregon, with Mount Hood looming beyond. ...

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Chapter 15: Rails to Trails

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pp. 188-196

A curtain of cold rain descended west of the Cascades on a November day in 2002. But in the rain shadow east of the mountains, sunlight pierced the clouds and lit up hillsides blanketed with Oregon white oak in fall foliage of deep burnt orange. ...

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Chapter 16: The Haze Curtain

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pp. 197-208

It’s the nation’s only National Scenic Area, which makes the irony even more profound. Haze blurs views of stunning landscapes in the Columbia River Gorge year-round. The visual pollution is made worse by the gorge’s geography and weather patterns. ...

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Chapter 17: Logging Loopholes

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pp. 209-215

In 2003, lifelong Skamania County resident Roy Ostroski decided to take advantage of an ambiguity in the Scenic Area Management Plan regarding logging. Six months earlier, Ostroski had bought a wooded 40-acre parcel with plans to cut and sell most of the trees and convert the land to winter pasture for his small herd of nine cows. ...

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Chapter 18: The Casino Deal

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pp. 216-232

By the late 1990s, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, based on a 644,000-acre reservation in Central Oregon, had been struggling for years to revive its economic base. Tribal leaders first turned their eyes toward Hood River County as the site for a new casino in 1998. ...

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Chapter 19: Whistling Ridge

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pp. 233-244

To Jason Spadaro, the president of Broughton Lumber Company, the idea seemed like a natural winner. It was 2007, and state and federal “green energy” tax credits were fueling an astonishing boom in wind farm development across the Columbia Plateau. ...

Part IV: Restoring a Legacy

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pp. 245-246

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Chapter 20: Rebuilding a Historic Route

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pp. 247-252

Few Pacific Northwest legacies are more treasured than Sam Lancaster’s historic Columbia River Highway. Yet “progress” began nibbling away at the 73-mile-long route between Troutdale and The Dalles barely more than a decade after the scenic roadway was completed in 1922. ...

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Chapter 21: The Recreation Challenge

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pp. 253-262

Congressional appropriations totaling more than $67 million have enabled the agency to purchase more than 41,000 acres of private land from willing sellers in the gorge—29,249 acres in Washington and 11,775 acres in Oregon. ...

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Chapter 22: Cape Horn Convergence

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pp. 263-268

Dave Bennick maneuvered his forklift into position at the front of the rambling, low-slung house. Daniel Casati revved up his chain saw and sliced through the posts supporting the roof of the front walkway. Bennick slid the forks under the roof section, deftly lifted it in one piece and set it down away from the house. ...

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Chapter 23: A River Unleashed

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pp. 269-274

On a cool morning in late October 2011, dozens of people gathered near the east bank of the White Salmon River to witness a historic event—the breaching of a ninety-eight-year-old dam. Thousands more from all over the world tuned in to a live-streaming video feed to watch the dam crumble. ...

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Chapter 24: A Quarter Century

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pp. 275-282

The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area marked its twenty-fifth anniversary in late summer of 2011. But the mood was far from celebratory. The Gorge Commission was struggling to carry on its work in the face of steep budget cuts and lagging political support. Some questioned its relevance. ...

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Chapter 25: The Fight for the Gorge Continues

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pp. 283-292

The Columbia River Gorge regularly turns up in travel magazines as a hip, photogenic destination for active, environmentally aware and culturally sophisticated tourists. The appeal of the gorge shows no sign of waning as Northwest city dwellers—and tourists from around the world—look for opportunities to hike and commune with nature ...


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pp. 293-300


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pp. 301-312

E-ISBN-13: 9780870717178
E-ISBN-10: 0870717170
Print-ISBN-13: 9780870717161
Print-ISBN-10: 0870717162

Page Count: 328
Illustrations: B&W Photographs.
Publication Year: 2013