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Originally published Sunday, July 3, 2011 at 1:05 PM

Columbia River Gorge law has contained sprawl

Twenty-five years ago, the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act set in motion a bold experiment in federal land use across one of the Northwest's most dramatic landscapes.

The Associated Press

quotes It's refreshing to hear of a multi-jurisdictional government program that has worked... Read more

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VANCOUVER, Wash. —

Twenty-five years ago, the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act set in motion a bold experiment in federal land use across one of the Northwest's most dramatic landscapes.

Today, even as the bistate commission that administers the law struggles to carry on its work in the face of deep budget cuts, the act has largely succeeded in containing sprawl along the Columbia Gorge in Washington state and Oregon, the Columbian newspaper reported.

More houses have been built in the scenic area, but spectacular Gorge vistas remain largely pristine. More clear-cuts dot private timberland in Washington state, but the Forest Service has required that loggers use a light touch on the most sensitive sites. New commercial and industrial development is concentrated in the 13 urban areas designated for economic growth.

The act put the U.S. Forest Service and a new bistate Gorge commission in charge of regulating the development of rural lands within 292,630 acres. The goals were to protect scenic views and cultural treasures from development, and encourage compatible economic growth in 13 small towns and cities on both sides of the Columbia River.

The act authorized millions for a hotel and convention center in Skamania County, a visitor center in The Dalles, Ore., a trail along the route of the Historic Columbia River Highway in Oregon and economic development assistance to Gorge communities. It also guaranteed the four treaty tribes of the Columbia Basin a voice in decisions affecting their traditional lands.

The commission's first management plan in 1992 spelled out what kinds of development would be allowed in the rural scenic area.

"The original commission's management plan was the high-water mark," said Michael Lang, conservation director for Friends of the Gorge. "As difficult as it was to take this law without a lot of specifics" and develop an implementation plan, "they did a pretty good job."

Counties could adopt their own ordinances implementing the management plan or let the Gorge Commission oversee development. Eventually five counties adopted ordinances. Klickitat County was the holdout, so Gorge Commission staff reviews all applications for development in the part of Klickitat County that lies within the scenic area. Because it chose to ignore the law, Klickitat is not eligible to receive economic development money.

Longtime observers say the Scenic Area Act has been a positive force in shaping the Gorge economy.

The scenic area is a plus in attracting and keeping businesses, said Amanda Hoey, executive director of the Mid-Columbia Economic Development District, told the Columbian. "A number are locating here for lifestyle reasons."

"Organizations have moved here because it's a great place to live, and they also knew it was not going to end up being overly developed," said Gorge Commissioner Joyce Reinig of Hood River, Ore., who has served on the panel from the beginning.

The Scenic Area Act and economic forces beyond the control of the Forest Service and the Gorge Commission have combined to produce both winners and losers in Gorge towns and cities, the Columbian reported.

A Google server farm pumped new energy and hundreds of jobs into The Dalles, Ore., home to a closed aluminum smelter.

Windsurfing and kite-boarding put Hood River on the international map for water sports. Insitu, the manufacturer of unmanned aircraft and now a subsidiary of Boeing Co., moved its engineering staff from Bingen to Hood River last year. About 500 of Insitu's 800 employees are in the Gorge.

Stevenson, the seat of Skamania County, Wash., has become a bedroom community with a conference center and tourist shops and restaurants.

Bingen, 20 miles east, remains home to one of the Gorge's few surviving lumber mills, SDS Lumber Co., which was forced to reduce operations to one shift during the recent recession.

Meanwhile, across the Bridge of the Gods in Oregon, Cascade Locks is struggling to survive. As jobs have disappeared, its population has dropped and the town has lost its high school. Cascade Locks has no major year-round industry.

The town has pinned its hopes on a proposal by the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs to build a large casino complex on industrial land owned by the Port of Cascade Locks at the east end of town.

Former Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski signed a compact with the tribe in 2004 to approve a 500,000-square-foot casino if the tribe agreed to give the state a conservation easement protecting 175 acres of tribal land east of Hood River. But the tribe ran into delays in getting the Bush administration's Bureau of Indian Affairs to agree to take the land in trust, and the Obama administration has not yet approved the tribe's environmental impact statement.

With the election of John Kitzhaber, a firm opponent of off-reservation casinos, to a third term last year, the tribe decided to build a new casino on its Central Oregon reservation, along U.S. 26.

The Cascade Locks isn't pinning all its hopes on a new casino. The port is preparing to break ground on a 10,000-square-foot industrial building to be marketed as an incubator for small businesses.

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Information from: The Columbian, http://www.columbian.com

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