Friends and the National Scenic Area

Friends' Founder Nancy Russell meets with then-Vice President George H.W. Bush.

Friends was created in 1980 to champion permanent protection for the Columbia River Gorge. In 1979 and 1980, several events interacted to lead to the organization of Friends. The National Park Service, at the prodding of Gorge resident Chuck Williams, carried out a study of the Gorge and the nature of the threats to its future, and proposed several management alternatives, including supervision of the area by a multi-governmental Commission. Williams, who was working for Friends of the Earth, later founded the Columbia Gorge Coalition.

The publication of the Park Service study coincided with the approval by Skamania County of a 24-lot subdivision across the Columbia River from Multnomah Falls. This approval exemplified the inability of the Gorge Commissions, as they were then constituted, to control the local pressures for land development. Friends was organized, under the leadership of Nancy Russell, as a public interest group to work toward a way to permanently protect the Gorge's natural values.

The Directors of Friends, as listed in the March 1981 Articles of Incorporation, included prominent, politically active people from both states: ex-Oregon Governors Tom McCall and Bob Straub, ex-Washington Governor Dan Evans, Multnomah County Executive Donald Clark, and Portland City Commissioner Mike Lindberg . Nancy Russell was the first Chairman of the Board and directed the opening of an office, the hiring of an Executive Director and the necessary raising of money.

The activities of the new group were, from the beginning, directed in three areas:
working to develop federal legislation aimed at permanently protecting the Gorge, creating widespread public support for Gorge protection, and challenging inappropriate development proposals in the Gorge.

The proposed development across from Multnomah Falls, and an additional proposed subdivision just west of Beacon Rock, were successfully challenged through lawsuits brought by Friends. However, it was obvious that the march of single-family dwelling development across the rural lands of the Gorge counties could not be stopped by individual lawsuits, but rather required a single public entity that could exercise control over the many jurisdictions making land-use decisions.

From 1981 to 1986, Friends worked hard on the arduous task of building political support that ultimately would lead to the creation by the US Congress of a National Scenic Area including both sides of the Columbia Gorge.

There were nine major state and federal hearings in Oregon, Washington and in Washington, DC. Friends worked closely with Senators Hatfield, Packwood, Evans and Gorton, and Representatives AuCoin, Wyden, Weaver and Bonker to craft a series of bills that would establish the National Scenic Area. Major economic and resource development interests in the Gorge organized vigorous opposition.

However, the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act was finally passed by both the US Senate and House in October, 1986.  The bill was signed by President Reagan on November 17, 1986, just hours before the bill would have died from a pocket veto. All members of the Washington delegation voted for the passage of the Act; two members from Oregon, Reps. Denny Smith and Bob Smith, opposed the Act.

The National Scenic Area Act established three classifications of land in the Gorge:

  • Special Management Area (SMA)
  • General Management Area (GMA)
  • Urban Areas.


The boundaries of these areas were delineated on maps and incorporated into the Act. A single, bistate Columbia River Gorge Commission (Commission) was created, consisting of three commissioners appointed by the Governor of Oregon, three by the Governor of Washington,and one commissioner appointed by each of the six counties (Multnomah, Hood River and Wasco in Oregon and Clark, Skamania and Klickitat in Washington). An ex officio (nonvoting) member of the Commission is appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture.

The Gorge Commission and the US Forest Service were directed by the Act to create a resource inventory, develop land-use designations and craft a Management Plan within three years after the Act was signed into law. In the meantime, the US Forest Service and the Gorge Commission made land-use decisions in the National Scenic Area using interim guidelines.

Friends monitored these decisions and gave continuing input in the public hearings leading to the development of the Management Plan. The National Scenic Area Management Plan contains land use zoning and resource protection standards for all nontribal lands within the Scenic Area, outside of designated urban areas.  The Plan was adopted by the Gorge Commission in October 1991 and was approved by the US Secretary of Agriculture in February 1992.

The National Scenic Area Act does allow some new development to occur as long as it complies with resource protection standards. Each county in the Gorge is required to adopt and administer land-use ordinances that are consistent with the Management Plan. Five of the six counties have adopted National Scenic Area ordinances.  The Gorge Commission continues to administer the land use ordinance for portions of Klickitat County that are within the National Scenic Area. The Forest Service administers the Manmagment Plan on all federal land within the Gorge.

Friends' staff reviews and provides comments on every land use application within the scenic area, covering several county, regional and federal jurisdictions.  Friends reviews 250-300 development applications annually to ensure compliance with laws that protect the Columbia Gorge and it appeals less than 2% of these decisions.

Since the passage of the National Scenic Area Act, over 38,000 acres of land has been purchased by the Forest Service for resource protection and enhancement. These purchases from willing private sellers has ensured that the outstanding resources of the Gorge are safe from development and has provided new parks and trails for the public to enjoy. As a result of the National Scenic Area Act, over $90 million in Congressional funding has been funneled in the Gorge for land acquisition, recreation enhancements and economic development with the urban areas of the Gorge.

Friends of the Columbia Gorge is a membership organization. Financial contributions from our membership make up a bulk of our support. While many conservation non-profits rely heavily on foundation funding, Friends derives two-thirds of its funding from individuals. Friends has maintained the support of its members not only as a result of its advocacy and watchdog roles, but also through sponsoring hikes in the Gorge throughout the year.

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