We Are All Caretakers of the Gorge

We Are All Caretakers of the Gorge
Land stewardship volunteers work together to remove invasive plant species at Friends' Mosier Plateau land trust property. (photographer: Debbie Asakawa)

Monday, February 5, 2018

By Kevin Gorman
Executive Director

When I was in my mid-twenties, my dad, at what now seems a shockingly youthful 52 years old, suffered a massive heart attack. He survived the attack but required triple-bypass surgery, then developed hepatitis from a blood transfusion during the surgery. While I had enjoyed a round of golf with him the morning before his heart attack, it would be a full year of my mother, myself and others serving as his caretaker before he would return to being the person I once knew.
Since the Eagle Creek fire began last September, thousands of us have fallen into the role of caretakers as we work to support a place we care so dearly about, the Columbia Gorge. One moment we were enjoying breathtaking vistas and lush forests; days later the place we once knew was unrecognizable. It has been a jarring experience, and I feel fortunate that Friends of the Columbia Gorge has a core set of values to guide us forward. One value is the emphasis on community. Building community amongst our members has driven our organizational growth and is energizing an emerging group of Gorge stewards critical in tackling the challenges that lie ahead. 
Being a part of a community also means you have a responsibility to support others when they need a helping hand, even when the costs to your own interest aren't certain. That's why during the heart of the Eagle Creek fire we shut down our fundraising efforts to raise over $48,000 to support the Hood River Sherriff Office's Search and Rescue team. It's also why Friends recently made a special $10,000 gift to help kick-off Oregon Kitchen Table's crowdfunding campaign to support rebuilding efforts for trails closed by the fire surrounding Multnomah Falls.

Angel's Rest and Multnomah Falls are two of the most treasured recreation areas in the Pacific Northwest. Our gift to Oregon Kitchen Table's Be There for the Gorge campaign is a way for Friends' members to play an important role in an ambitious community effort to help take back some of what was lost in the fire and seize the opportunity to make some of these cherished places better than before.
Simply rebuilding loved trails won’t be enough to heal the Gorge as it is home to more than hikers. Wildlife, from chirping pikas to silent water ouzels, depend on unique and rich habitat in the Gorge. Communities from Corbett to Wishram depend on the Gorge and the recreation dollars Gorge-lovers bring. But, too many people loving the Gorge can bring congestion and environmental degradation. Some of the Gorge’s problems can be solved with crowdfunding and trail building, while other deep-seated problems need more time, more listening, and more collaboration. The Eagle Creek fire has started to provide space for those discussions.
While Friends wholeheartedly supports trail building and community revitalization, our most important role in the coming years is as a caretaker of the land itself, from the burned forests to lands outside the burn that are susceptible to future development and clearcutting. This spring, Friends is launching an entirely new program to support a natural recovery of the burned areas. With donations received as a result of the Eagle Creek fire, we have hired a stewardship volunteer coordinator to marshal the volunteer enthusiasm of last fall. The greatest threat to the burned areas is the spread of invasive species from the adjacent lands that were not burned. Friends will lead work parties this spring, summer and fall to keep invasive weeds from overrunning the burned areas.
We are also caring for Gorge lands outside the burn area. Friends is in the final stages of raising $5.5 million for our Preserve the Wonder campaign. With over 85% of the funds raised, we are on track to protect seven properties totaling 420 acres to ensure these lands will never be developed. In the midst of the Eagle Creek fire recovery, it is easy to overlook that this campaign is the most ambitious effort in our 38-year history, and we are so close to making it a reality.
Finally, we are caring for the land through our collective voices as the Gorge Commission and U.S. Forest Service review their management plans for the coming decade. This work is not as tangible as buying land and pulling weeds, but its impact is just as profound. How these lands are zoned, managed and monitored over the coming decade will determine the ultimate fate of Gorge protection.
The public response to the Eagle Creek fire has been truly remarkable. At a time of so much sadness, so much fear and so much uncertainty, people who love the Gorge stepped up to help in unimaginable ways. In turn we've been able to channel this wave of new members, volunteers and energies to make a real difference. In addition to the $48,000 raised for Hood River Search & Rescue and $10,000 gifted to the Be There for the Gorge crowdfunding campaign, we rallied the public on the dangers of Congressman Greg Walden's reckless post-fire Gorge clear-cutting bill. And we helped organize a series of fall community forums in Portland, Troutdale and Hood River to allow the public to hear firsthand from leading forest ecologists the impacts of the fire and the best steps forward to assure a natural forest recovery.
For decades, Friends has worked to help bridge the gaps between the conservation, recreation, and the economic development communities. And as I look ahead to the challenges the Gorge will face in coming year, I rest assured knowing that we have a strong community of caretakers. 
As I watched my dad recover from his heart attack and subsequent complications, I learned the lesson every caretaker learns. His recovery would not come simply from the right medicine or the right diet or the right exercises. Recovery came as we tended to all of those aspects and paid attention to the bigger picture. We face similar challenges in the Gorge today, and we must treat this place as we would one of our closest loved ones. 

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