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A Diamond in the Rough at Catherine Creek

A Diamond in the Rough at Catherine Creek
East-facing view from Friends of the Columbia Gorge Land Trust's recently acquired preserve at Catherine Creek. (photographer: Stan Hall)
By Dan Bell
Land Trust Director
January 28, 2021

In more than 20 years of working with land trusts, it has happened to me only a handful of times: getting the opportunity to protect a piece of property that is both critically important and potentially transformative. More often than not, these properties have been targets of conservation for decades, then suddenly they become an opportunity when they go on the open market. Typically, you only get one chance, or the property may go to another buyer and never be conserved.

As I walked the Catherine Creek trail over Memorial Day weekend, I knew this was another of those rare opportunities. Along the trail, I could easily see the newly listed Gorge property from every direction, and looking at a map, it was easy to understand why this 4-acre parcel at the Catherine Creek trailhead had become a top priority. After all, Catherine Creek encompasses one of the most visible landscapes in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, easily viewed from iconic places such as the Memaloose Overlook and the Historic Columbia River Highway. This particular property could be seen from a half dozen Key Viewing Areas in the eastern Gorge. Key Viewing Areas are important roads, trails, recreational sites, and other places offering the public scenic views of the Gorge. Twenty-six Key Viewing Areas have been designated within the Scenic Area and include portions of public roads, parks, trails, and other public vantage points.

But to see this particular parcel up close, on the ground, was different. It was a diamond in the rough, and seeing its potential took a different kind of vision—you needed to see beyond what was there. And we did. After weeks of intense analysis, consultation, and negotiations, this fall Friends of the Columbia Gorge Land Trust acquired this 4-acre scenic jewel—one of the last private properties within the 4,000-acre Catherine Creek Recreation Area—to ensure its permanent protection.

Grabbing the opportunity

Located eight miles east of Hood River, across the bridge in Washington, the Catherine Creek Recreation Area is one of the premier places in the eastern Gorge for early spring wildflower viewing. With an easy grade, a paved trail, and stunning Gorge views, it’s a popular and accessible recreation site. But property acquisitions are rarely easy for any land trust.

When this opportunity presented itself to Friends, we had to move decisively and quickly. Within weeks we had put in place the tools needed to approach the sellers and develop an acceptable offer.

Through challenging negotiations, we always came back to our vision. If we could get this done, it could provide impact and leverage far beyond the property boundaries, much as our Steigerwald Shores purchase has enabled the largest floodplain restoration project ever on the lower Columbia River. This property at Catherine Creek could also have a transformative impact, and we knew it. We were not just negotiating for a piece of property, we were trying to secure the rare opportunity to reimagine the Catherine Creek trailhead area.

The big picture: restoration and conservation

Summer flew by, and by the time October rolled around, we had covered a lot of ground. Negotiations and final property inspections were over. The previous landowners had moved the last of their equipment and material off the land, and Friends’ Land Trust had secured the property. For the first time in more than a decade, the land was cleared and the full potential started to show. It was no longer a personal enclave tucked within one of the Gorge’s premier scenic treasures. Now it was a blank canvas for conservation and recreation. We had accomplished the first critical step to set the stage for something better. We could start to imagine.

For more than a decade, the Columbia River Gorge Commission and U.S. Forest Service had expressed concerns about Scenic Area violations on the property—many stemming from a 2003 land-use decision that approved a replacement dwelling. Friends’ land trust is committed to fulfilling these conditions of approval to bring the property into full compliance with the National Scenic Area Act. In the coming months, we will begin to remove unpermitted outbuildings, plant screening vegetation, and reduce the visual impact of the property.

But there is so much more to the picture. The Catherine Creek acquisition provides a unique opportunity for Friends to engage in a dialogue and discussion on how to enhance access to one of the Columbia Gorge’s most popular and scenic recreation areas. Now in our ownership, the purchase allows planning and stewardship activities to improve current trails and return native plant cover to the property, enhancing the scenery while creating additional habitat for native birds and pollinators.

Creating a community vision

This purchase also catalyzes conversations with new voices focused on making the Gorge safer and more accessible for all. As just one example, there are opportunities to enhance connections to the adjacent ADA-accessible trail. With rugged, steep terrain in much of the Gorge, spaces where those with mobility challenges can enjoy the majestic scenery or spring wildflowers are too rare. We embrace the opportunity to learn from this community and consider improvements that enhance their experience.

Along with everyone else that uses that trail regularly. It is just as common to see parents with strollers or young children using the gentle, paved path at Catherine Creek. It reminds us to continue our own efforts to integrate Universal Access principles and design create trails that are usable and welcoming for the greatest range of people possible.

In the coming years, we look forward to hearing from our longstanding partners, and also to building relationships with and listening to new ones. With insights and perspectives from new voices, we hope to create a community resource to benefit all. It is time to let our vision give way to a shared vision. It is an opportunity to re-image a place in the Columbia Gorge that is accessible and safe for all.

It will take some time to know what the future of the property holds—years, or even decades. But one thing is certain, it will truly be something for all of us to see.

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