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100.190 Columbia River Gorge: Conservation, Preservation and Restoration


In 1908, inspired and supported by the nation's first chief forester, Gifford Pinchot, President Theodore Roosevelt held the first conference of state governors on behalf of conservation.  The President appointed a commission to implement the first nation-wide resource inventory of timber, water supplies, grazing land, oil, and mineral supplies. (Reddick viii)

The Columbia River Highway ... would launch the campaign to protect Columbia Gorge landscapes from heedless development.  (Durbin 18)

"Development" to most Oregonians in 1916 was not a dirty word -- it was a natural consequence: Pioneers arrived; they inventoried; they developed.  There were, of course, engineers and developers whose motivation was solely economic, who sited roads without consideration for the natural scenery.  But the "development" [Ira] Williams promoted was not intended to be a callous destruction of nature.  Instead, like Lancaster, Williams' concept was more closely aligned with the pragmatic ideals of Stephen T. Mather, first director of the National Park Service.  Derived from the "environmental determinism" proposed by the nineteenth-century social reformers, these ideals were based on the belief that urban social ills could be resolved through exposing the "working class" to nature and reinforced by the belief that, with new road building technology, people could enjoy nature without damaging it.  "Scenic resources," therefore, could be both consumed and protected simultaneously.

Williams enthusiastically referred to the Columbia River Highway as "capable of bearing upon it's own surface a traffic of unlimited proportions."  Of course, no one anticipated the havoc that would be wreaked upon the landscape by the invasion of the automobile and its progeny; smog and traffic jams, oil slicks and the "greenhouse effect," were inconceivable in 1916.  But Ira Williams and his peers were both engineers and dreamers of the American Dream.  They planned for the future with a faith in human goodness and technological solutions that were formed from the social, philosophical, and spiritual "geology" that preceded them.  (Reddick x-xi)

Rooted in the Jefferson tradition, the philosophy of work as the ultimate American virtue and Progress as an edict from heaven was most dramatically illustrated in the writings of the man who designed and built the highway.  Sam Lancaster wrote The Columbia, America's Greatest Highway - Through the Cascade Mountains to the Sea (1915). ...  Clearly influenced by the preservationist views of of John Muir, the book was ideal for the romantic tourist -- heavily laden with poetic and deeply spiritual descriptions of Lancaster's favorite places in the Gorge.  A devout Southern Baptist, the author perceived the natural beauties of the earth (and the good fortunes of certain men) to be directly attributable to God, as he revealed in the dedication of his book to Sam Hill:

There is a time and place for every man to act his part in life's drama and to build according to his ideals.  God shaped these great mountains round about us, and lifted up those mighty domes into a region of perpetual snow.  He fashioned the Gorge of the Columbia, fixed the course of the broad river, and caused the crystal streams both small and great to leap down from the crags and sing their never ending songs of joy
    Then he planted a garden, men came and built a beautiful city close by this wonderland.  To some He gave great wealth -- to every man his talent -- and when the time had come for men to break down the mountain barriers, construct a great highway of commerce, and utilize the beautiful, which is "as useful as the useful," He set them to the task and gave to each his place. (p. 5) (Reddick xi)

By the mid-twentieth century, the gorge was a compromised beauty.  Dikes had destroyed wetlands along the river.  Dams were turning the mighty Columbia into a series of impounded reservoirs.  Railroads and highways lined both shores of the river, limiting access.  Clearcuts marred forested slopes; gravel pits pocked the walls of the gorge.  The growth of cities to the west and industry to the east had spread a pall of haze. Residential development spilled out of the flatlands of Portland and Vancouver into the west end of the gorge.  With the arrival of railroads and freeways, the gorge had become a noisy place.  The clamor of traffic invaded its secret canyons and forest trails.  The Columbia River Gorge no longer felt wild.  (Durbin 21)

Driving at the base of the towering cliffs -- even at 65 miles per hour -- it is still possible to catch an occasional glance of the old scenic highway as it clings delicately vine-like, yet tenaciously, to the sheet edges of the magnificent basalt formation.  Unfortunately, the bigger and more efficient freeways destroyed parts of the original road, but some sections remain. (Reddick xiii)

Fortunately though, through the efforts of many persons and the cooperation of both state and federal agencies, most of the Columbia River Highway is now protected from further destruction and development.  (Reddick xiii)

An era of restoration has arrived.  Dams on many small tributary streams have been dismantled.  Old logging roads have been eradicated.  Land damaged by logging and mining and livestock grazing has been healed.  There are new trails and parks and inns and wineries.  Two abandoned sections of the historic highway have been restored and are now popular hiking and cycling trails.
 (Durbin 7)

...the Columbia River Highway initiated and has continued to symbolize an ethic that remains dominant even today in Oregon's land-use planning legislation -- the conservation and reservation of natural and scenic resources.  It certainly is poetic justice that the survival of that ethic is manifest in the legislation leading to restoration of the beautiful historic highway.  (Reddick xiv)

In 1981, the National Park Service compiled a Columbia River Highway Inventory that identified and cataloged each remnant of the highway by section and according to its condition.  Additionally, the National Park Service produced the Columbia River Highway Options for Conservation and Reuse, suggesting ways in which the highway could serve future recreational purposes.  From those efforts, several restoration projects were implemented, and legislation has been passed for the highway's long-range protection and restoration.  (Reddick xiii)

In 1983, the Oregon Department of Transportation, with the aid and support of the State Advisory Committee on Historic Preservation, nominated the Columbia River Highway Historic District to the National Register of Historic Places, and in 12 December 1983, the Highway was listed on the National Register.  (Reddick xiii)

In November 1986, the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area was created by Public Law 99-663, establishing a partnership between federal, state, and local agencies.  Under section 12 of this law, one of the responsibilities of these groups is to work together to : "prepare a program and undertake efforts to preserve and restore the continuity and historic integrity of the Old Columbia River Highway for public use as a Historic Road, including recreation trails to connect intact and usable segments."  (Reddick xiii)

In 1987, the Oregon Legislature passed Senate Bill 766, which refined and clarified the state's policy towards the historic highway.  That same year, the State Parks and Recreation Division and the Highway Division of the Oregon Department of Transportation, completed a comprehensive Study of the Historic Columbia River Highway and made numerous recommendations for the rehabilitation process.  (Reddick xiii)

Since 1986, tens of thousands of acres in the gorge previously in private ownership and available for development have been acquired by the Forest Service, the Trust for Public Land, the Nature Conservancy and the Friends of the Gorge Land Trust.  With appropriations from Congress, the Forest Service has purchased and restored old rock quarries, grazed-over pastures, a historic ranch and rare oak forests.  (Durbin 8)

The Forest Service used appropriations from Congress to acquire thousands of acres of private land and restore them for public use.  Land trusts stepped up to buy other pristine properties to protect them from development.  (Durbin 7)

The Forest Service has more land to manage than it did in 1986, but it lacks funding to establish, improve and mark trails, so much of this new public land remains undeveloped and inaccessible.  (Durbin 9)

[In 2013] The gorge itself is hardly pristine.  Heavily used rail lines and highways border both shores.  Clearcuts scar forested mountainsides.  Transmission towers march over the mountain ranges.  The river is and will remain an essential part of the nation's industrial and transportation infrastructure.  (Durbin 7)

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