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Persistence to Improve Gorge Protections Pays Off, Despite Pandemic

Persistence to Improve Gorge Protections Pays Off, Despite Pandemic

By spring 2020, Friends of the Columbia Gorge and its allies were making the final push to advocate for significant revisions to the National Scenic Area Management Plan, which had been updated only once since its original adoption 30 years ago.

In April alone, more than a dozen outdoor events were scheduled to educate and engage the public about the need to improve the plan and ensure better Scenic Area protections. The call to action: write or provide verbal testimony to the Columbia River Gorge Commission—the regional government entity responsible for reviewing and revising the plan—before June 30, when the window for public comment would close after an arduous, four-year process.

Then Covid-19 hit, shuttering most of Oregon and Washington and eliminating nearly all in-person gatherings.

“We had to completely pivot to online events,” said Friends Field Representative Peter Cornelison, based in Hood River, Oregon. Friends also relied on its existing virtual public engagement tools, such as webinars and action alerts, disseminated via email and social media channels. Cornelison explained, “It was a learning process for everyone, but ultimately, hundreds of activists and citizens responded and provided compelling public comment remotely.”

On Oct. 13, 2020, the Gorge Commission voted to adopt an updated plan that, in addition to other mandates, will:

  • Limit urban expansion;
  • Require the development of a climate action plan;
  • Prohibit the destruction of wetlands;
  • Increase the size of protective stream buffers for critical salmon habitat;
  • Improve development standards to protect scenic views;
  • Limit new dwellings in forest zones to reduce fire risks;
  • Improve standards protecting agricultural lands;
  • Expand mining restrictions; and
  • Require the creation of an equity lens to guide future decision making.

Despite the ongoing challenges of the pandemic, Friends has been able to adapt and increase its reach by offering multiple ways in which its members and the public can participate in protecting and preserving this national scenic treasure.

“Overall, the revised management plan is a victory for the Gorge, its communities, and endangered or threatened species such as salmon,” said Michael Lang, Friends’ conservation director. “These improvements would not have come about without the unrelenting advocacy of Friends, our allies, and especially Gorge residents, young and old, who have stepped up for Gorge protection time and time again.”

This feature is part of digital highlights of Friends' 2020-21 Annual Report.