Climate Change & Gorge Protection
Building climate resilience, adaptation, and mitigation
Summer sunrays on Crown Point. (photographer: Cate Hotchkiss)

The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area is a natural treasure containing five major ecosystems and important habitat for many threatened species, including 12 stocks of salmon listed under the federal Endangered Species Act. These species are further endangered by the effects of climate change on their habitat. This is particularly true for salmon habitat, as stream flows decrease and water temperatures increase to the point of being lethal for endangered salmon.

Climate adaptation and mitigation policies are necessary to build climate resilience, fulfill the purposes of the Scenic Area Act and improve protection of the outstanding resources of the Gorge. Until recently, there was no mention of climate change in the Gorge Management Plan for the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. The previous plan was originally adopted in 1991, was long overdue for revision, and many of its policies were out of date and did not represent the best available science.

Urged on by Friends of the Columbia Gorge, in 2020 the Columbia River Gorge Commission adopted a climate chapter into the revised management plan requiring the development of a Climate Action Plan that includes specific actions to mitigate climate change and build climate resilience in the Gorge.

Also at Friends' request, the Gorge Commission improved protection for critical “cold water refuge” on seven rivers in the Columbia Gorge, to better protect critical habitat for endangered salmon.

The threat of climate change to salmon and steelhead in the Gorge also affects the eagle population. (photographer: Linda Steider)

With reduced flows and warming temperatures due to climate change, protecting western pond turtles, listed as endangered in Washington and threatened in Oregon, are hanging on to existence in the Gorge thanks to efforts by the Oregon Zoo, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, and Friends of the Columbia Gorge.

As climate change threatens to decrease their habitat, it’s important to ensure that land use and development don’t destroy the remaining habitat for these small, but long-lived reptiles. While we know that western pond turtles can lay their eggs more than 100 meters away from their ponds, pond buffers extend only 23 meters out from the edge of ponds and lakes. These buffers need to be increased to better protect endangered turtles.

The Columbia Gorge has the only low-elevation populations of pika in the lower 48 states. This cute, diminutive relative of the rabbit lives on mossy, shaded scree slopes in the western and central Gorge. As temperatures rise, protection of suitable habitat for the pika is essential to their survival. Yet in the Gorge logging and mining is still allowed in habitat for these unique, low-elevation pika populations. The management plan must be revised to protect pika habitat, especially considering the effects of climate change.

An American pika rests at Little Beacon Rock. (photographer: Linda Steider)

On March 1, 2022, the commission released its first draft of the Climate Action plan for public review. The draft plan is a step in the right direction and contains valuable information regarding the potential effects of climate change in the Columbia Gorge. However, the plan contains very few actions to build climate resilience in the Gorge. Mapping, monitoring and studies are important, but they are only valuable if used to inform specific policies that reduce greenhouse emissions and build climate resiliency.

The urgency is very real, because climate change and its impacts are accelerating. Just the day before the Gorge climate action plan was released, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued its Climate Change 2022 report, prepared by 270 scientists from 67 countries. The report concludes that the dangers of climate change are accelerating and nations are not doing nearly enough to reduce greenhouse gas emission and build resiliency to the effects of climate change.

Scientists recommend immediate action to drastically reduce emissions and build climate resiliency. Dr. Hoesung Lee, Chair of the IPCC, said “The report is a dire warning about the consequences of inaction. It shows that climate change is a grave and mounting threat to our well-being and a healthy planet. It also shows that our actions today will shape how people adapt to climate change and how nature responds to increasing climate risks.”

Friends supports the following priorities in the climate action plan:

  • Protect and enhance habitat for endangered salmon runs. Protect water resources by increasing protective buffers around all salmon streams.
  • Improve wetland protection. Friends supports the revision of the GMA wetlands guidelines, including buffer requirements, to achieve the policy of no loss of wetlands.
  • Protect priority habitats. The Commission has access to current mapping that identifies priority habitat areas in the Gorge. Many of these priority habitats are located in areas that have high climate resilience, but are zoned for resource extraction purposes. Protect priority habitats by zoning these lands as protected open space.
  • Protect forests by preventing industrial-scale clearcutting. Forest practices in the General Management Area (GMA) are regulated by the Oregon and Washington Forest Practices Acts. These laws allow large-scale clearcutting which releases massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. Convene representatives from the Oregon Department of Forestry and the Washington DNR to develop climate-smart forestry rules for the GMA that promote healthy forests, increase biodiversity and enhance carbon sequestration.
  • Reduce the risks of forest fires. Develop and implement criteria for temporary closure of public lands during periods of high risk for forest fires, such as red flag warnings.
  • Prevent the spread of invasive species and promote biodiversity. For example, require best management practices for new land uses and development to avoid the spread of invasive species. Require all vegetative screening for new development to be species native to the Gorge.
  • Protect forests from residential development. Reduce the risks of wildfires caused by new land uses and development. Limit new residential development in Small Woodland zones.
  • Protect tribal treaty rights from the impacts of climate change. Columbia Basin Tribes have protected treaty rights to hunt, gather foods and fish in their usual and accustomed places. Work with tribal partners to adopt new policies to protect treaty rights and traditional “First Foods.”
  • Protect agricultural lands. Prevent the loss of agricultural lands by prohibiting new nonfarm dwellings on lands suitable for agriculture. The current policies for nonfarm dwellings in Large-Scale Agricultural zones are out of date.
  • Promote regional transportation solutions reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Friends supports legislation to create a regional transportation authority to develop a Gorge-wide transit plan to provide regional transportation options that are affordable and reduce carbon emissions.
  • Prohibit the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure in the Gorge, such as natural gas transmission and distribution. Natural gas is comprised of methane gas, which is a potent greenhouse gas. Reducing reliance on natural gas is an effective mitigation measure for fighting climate change.
  • Avoid climate maladaptation measures in the plan. Allowing increased rural residential development, including accessory dwelling units in rural areas, is a “maladaptation” that increases carbon emissions and climate vulnerability. Instead, the plan should include policy recommendations to discourage new rural residential development and encourage development within existing urban area boundaries where there are ample opportunities for development, including affordable housing, that reduce carbon emissions as compared to scattered rural residential development.

Contact

Denise López, conservation organizer | 971-634-2034 | denise@gorgefriends.org