The Struggle Over the Columbia River Gorge: Establishing and Governing the Country's Largest National Scenic Area

Contributor Roles

Nathan J. Baker, Staff Attorney, Friends of the Columbia River Gorge

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Washington Journal of Environmental Law & Policy

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Wash. J. Env't L. & Pol'y


This review of the late Kathie Durbin's final book discusses the unlikely enactment of the 1986 Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act and the events leading up to it. The statute's circuitous route through Congress was managed by Oregon's Senator Mark Hatfield, who convinced a skeptical President Reagan to sign the law he essentially opposed. Durbin's account examines both the legislation and the first quarter-century of its implementation. Protecting scenery the 85-mile long, 292,000-acre area with a majority of the land owned by over 50,000 residents required difficult balancing, and Durbin explains the many compromises struck in the legislation and ensuing management by an interstate compact commission and the U.S. Forest Service. The Gorge Commission, through its authority to approve county zoning ordinances in the Scenic Area, fundamentally changed local land use practices. The legislation also directed the Forest Service not only to manage its land to preserve the Gorge's scenery but also gave the agency unprecedented authority to regulate private lands in so-called special management areas, consisting of some 114,000 acres of the area's most environmentally and visually sensitive lands. Durbin's book offers many insights of federal-state and state-local relations that should be of value to other efforts to preserve natural resources in areas dominated by private lands. The book also spotlights a number of controveries involving air quality, treaty fishing rights, dam removal, and efforts to site wind farms, a destination resort, and an Indian casino. Natural resources law would benefit from more case studies such as that provided by Durbin's engaging look at the Columbia River Gorge.

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