The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act

What it is, how it works, and how Friends of the Columbia Gorge is involved

The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act
Classic "golden hour" view from the Portland Women's Forum looking east into the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. (photographer: Nick Wiltgen)
For most of the twentieth century, the wild, beautiful Columbia River Gorge faced threats from various developments and received piecemeal governmental protections, mostly on the Oregon side of the Columbia River. But as the 1980s began, plans to construct the suburban I-205 bridge spanning the river brought development pressures on the most pristine areas of the Gorge to a new level.

The approval by Skamania County, WA to build a subdivision which would be highly visible from iconic Multnomah Falls exemplified the inability of the then non-regulatory Washington and Oregon Gorge Commissions to manage increasing development pressures. A push for permanent, comprehensive federal protection of the Gorge’s natural landscape began, led by Nancy Russell and the newly formed Friends of the Columbia Gorge (Friends). The new non-profit organization helped stop that subdivision along with another proposed near Beacon Rock, but kept its eye on the prize for federal protection.

Crafting and Passing of the Scenic Area Act

From 1980 to 1986, Friends worked on the arduous task of building political support that would ultimately lead to the creation of a national scenic area including both sides of the Columbia Gorge. Friends initially advocated for management under the National Park Service, but with existing towns, railroads, and dams within the Gorge as well as a Northwest congressional delegation supportive of U.S. Forest Service management, a Forest Service-managed national scenic area proved more practical and politically feasible.

There were nine major state and federal hearings in Oregon, Washington, and Washington, DC. Friends worked closely with the congressional delegation to craft a series of bills that would establish the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. Major economic and resource development interests organized vigorous opposition.

However, the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area (NSA) Act was finally passed by both the U.S. 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.

Frequently Asked Questions about the NSA

Map showing boundaries of urban areas and management areas within the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. (source: US Forest Service)

The entire legislation can be read here. This is a broad overview of the Columbia River Gorge NSA Act:

What is a National Scenic Area? A National Scenic Area is a federally designated area of natural and scenic value that receives less protection than a Wilderness Area. A National Scenic Area is generally already populated by people, or is considered suited for uses in addition to wilderness.

How many National Scenic Areas exist? There are currently nine designated National Scenic Areas. Although it was not the first National Scenic Area (Mono Basin in California was designated in 1984), the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area is the largest and most well-known National Scenic Area, visited by approximately 2 million people annually.

What is the purpose of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act? The NSA Act has two purposes:
  • To protect and enhance the scenic, cultural, recreational, and natural resources of the Gorge
  • To protect and support the economy of the Gorge by encouraging sustainable growth in existing urban areas and by allowing future economic development in a manner that is consistent with the above purpose
The second purpose—encouraging economic growth—must be carried out in a manner that serves the first purpose: protecting and enhancing Gorge resources.

How large is the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area? The National Scenic Area consists of 293,000 acres located in Multnomah, Hood River, and Wasco Counties in Oregon and Clark, Skamania, and Klickitat Counties in Washington. The Scenic Area stretches for 85 miles from west to east, from the Sandy River Delta to the Deschutes River in Oregon and from Gibbons Creek to east of Wishram in Washington, and one to four miles wide from the Columbia River (essentially the ridge line), including both sides of the Columbia Gorge.

How does the NSA Act address the towns and cities in the Gorge, as well as private land ownership? The NSA Act divides the Scenic Area into three designated zones, all with different requirements for land use regulations.

  • Urban Area (approximately 10 percent of total acreage): These 13 towns and cities are the focus of economic development programs and are exempt from regulations that affect the rest of the NSA lands. Oregon: Cascade Locks, Hood River, Mosier, The Dalles. Washington: North Bonneville, Stevenson, Carson, Home Valley, White Salmon, Bingen, Lyle, Dallesport, Wishram.
  • General Management Area (approximately 50 percent; includes Columbia River): A variety of uses allowed (mostly forestry and agricultural), with some rural residential development permitted under certain guidelines to ensure no adverse impacts on Gorge resources. The Columbia River Gorge Commission has authority to adopt Management Plan regulations for the GMA.
  • Special Management Areas (approximately 40 percent): These are the most sensitive and stringently managed lands within the Gorge National Scenic Area, located mainly within the western half. The U.S. Forest Service is authorized to purchase, at fair market value, certain sensitive lands from willing sellers in SMA-designated areas, or to trade federal lands elsewhere for privately owned forestland with SMA designations. The Forest Service has the authority to write the Management Plan regulations for the SMAs.

Map showing the complex land ownership system within the Gorge Scenic Area boundary. (source: U.S. Forest Service)

The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area has acquired over 41,000 acres of public lands since 1986. Roughly half of those acres have been purchased, and slightly less than half have been acquired through land exchanges.

Map showing National Forest System lands (in green) before and after passage of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act (source: USDA. Forest Service)

Who oversees the National Scenic Area to ensure its protection? The NSA Act authorized Oregon and Washington to enter into a bi-state compact that created the Columbia River Gorge Commission. The NSA Act delegates authority to the Gorge Commission and the Forest Service to adopt and implement a Gorge Management Plan that regulates land use in the National Scenic Area (excluding Urban Areas). The Gorge Commission writes the rules for the GMA and oversees land use and development on private and state lands while the Forest Service writes the rules for the SMAs and oversees all federal activities. Gorge counties are allowed to adopt and enforce a land use ordinance that implements the Gorge Management Plan, subject to oversight by the Gorge Commission and Forest Service.

Who makes up the Gorge Commission? The Commission is a 13-member regional body representing federal, state, and local interests. Six of its members are appointed by the county commissions of each Gorge county. The Oregon and Washington governors each have three appointments, and one of the three must be individuals who reside in the National Scenic Area. The thirteenth member is a non-voting member and is a designee of the Secretary of Agriculture. Since the Commission’s inception, that seat has been filled by the Forest Service’s National Scenic Area Manager.

What is Friends of the Columbia Gorge’s role regarding the NSA Act today? Friends’ mission and programs are designed to protect and enhance the Columbia Gorge and serve as a citizen watchdog. See more about our member-driven work at the About Us and History sections of our website.