A historic new management plan that will guide future decisions and address urgent issues like climate change has been approved for the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.
The Columbia River Gorge Commission approved a revised Management Plan Tuesday, marking just the second time it’s been updated in 29 years. The 292,000-acre Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area is shared by Oregon and Washington. It supports endangered salmon runs, has five major ecosystems supporting 800 species of flowering plants and hosts a diversity of wildlife.
The revised management plan includes a wide range of new policies like doubling the size of protective steam buffers for salmon habitat, requiring an analysis if any of the 13 urban areas within the designated scenic area wants to expand and placing limits on the amount of land that can be used for urban development. It also adds greater restrictions on new construction in forest zones to reduce fire risks.
For the first time, the management plan requires a climate action strategy to continue to protect the region and adapt to changing climate. It also requires the development of diversity, equity and inclusion policies to help diversify the commissions, its staff, and develop an equity lens to make sure all voices are heard in the decision making process.
“We need to make sure that we are thinking seven generations ahead and that we are being as responsible as we can be,” Columbia River Gorge Commissioner Carina Miller said.
Miller is a member of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, a Wasco Tribal representative and co-chair of the energy committee for the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians.
Miller said before becoming a member of the Columbia River Gorge Commission, she attended its meetings as a Warm Springs Tribal Council member. She said she is excited the new changes have finally been adopted after what felt to her like they were delayed for too long while the commission focused on other issues like economic growth.
“It has been difficult because there are commissioners who I think have different focuses than what I am bringing to the table and what I am hearing a lot of the community members in the gorge say, that we want to deal with the climate, that we want to think about the environment,” Miller said.
Miller said she hopes under the new plans for diversity, equity and inclusion and climate action that the commissioners are demonstrating their seriousness about changing the way they operate. She also hopes the commission will look into how the commission and the Gorge came to be so white and centered on whiteness and how it failed to address issues that on center accessibility, livability and equity.
“It’s exciting to see those two things specifically take off,” Miller said. “But I also feel that there was a lot left out and there were a lot of conversations that we didn’t go deeper in because there just isn’t that representation at the commission.”
The U.S. Forest Service created the Columbia River Gorge Commission in 1986 under the National Scenic Area Act. Two years later, the commission developed a Scenic Area Management plan, which was then adopted in 1991. The plan must be reviewed at least every ten years to determine what needs to be updated to better protect the area.
Since the plan was first implemented, it has only been updated one time: in 2004.
Friends of the Columbia Gorge Conservation Director Michael Lang said there are several reasons why it took so long to revise and update the plan, like funding and finding the right mix of commissioners to work together. But the requirement of adding a climate action plan is a step in the right direction.
“We know temperatures are rising. We know that ecosystems are being affected. We know there’s greater risk of fire increase — frequency and intensity of fire, water temperatures are going up and that’s bad for salmon,” Lang said. “So, there’s a lot that needs to be done.”
Lang said getting the revised plan approved has been a long road, but it will ultimately improve the Gorge’s protection. But he said it was public engagement that gave it the push it needed to help make these changes.
“So many members of the public participated,” Lang said. “Thousands of people wrote comments to the Gorge Commission, went to hearings back when we could actually go to a hearing or participated in the Gorge Commission’s meetings through Zoom and really advocated for protection for the national scenic treasure.”
The revised plan will now be submitted to the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture for concurrence.