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 The previous plan was originally adopted in 1991, was long overdue for revision, and many of its policies were out of date and did not represent the best available science.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.

With climate change threatening to decrease their habitat, it was more important than ever to ensure that land use and development would not destroy the remaining habitat for these small, but long-lived reptiles. Western pond turtles can lay their eggs more than 100 meters away from their ponds, so wider buffers were needed from the edge of ponds and lakes to better protect these 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. The management plan needed revision to protect pika habitat.

Commission staff took a positive initial step by asking Friends’ Land Trust Director Dan Bell to serve on the advisory committee shaping the process for developing the Climate Change Action Plan. Bell agreed, bringing with him to the task a mapping tool created by The Nature Conservancy that ranks lands throughout the country according to their characteristics indicative of high climate resilience. This mapping has been critical for the land trust in determining which Gorge lands to prioritize for protective acquisition, and Gorge Commission staff embraced the value of mapping in creating the plan.

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

On March 1, 2022, the commission released its first draft of the Climate Change Action Plan for public review. The draft plan was a step in the right direction and contained valuable information regarding the potential effects of climate change in the Columbia Gorge. However, the plan contained 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 was 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.

Friends urged the following priorities to be addressed 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.

In June 2022, Friends’ team met with Gorge Commission staff to discuss the draft action plan priorities. It was the first-of-its-kind meeting, with cross-team representation from Friends’ land trust, legal, and conservation teams and a majority of the Gorge Commission staff. One of the central purposes that day was to strengthen existing relationships, discuss the authority of the Gorge Commission, and determine how our entities’ different efforts can complement each other. We discussed the complexities of how land-use planning can enhance climate resilience, and how agencies can support incentives for non-regulatory measures, such as expanding public transit in the Gorge.

With a foundation of mutual respect with Gorge Commission staff, Friends’ team navigated points of disagreement that cropped up in the details of the Climate Change Action Plan.

Following the last comment period, commission staff recommended their changes to the Gorge Commission—changes that Friends felt weakened what had been a strong, ambitious climate plan. Friends’ team met with the commission staff again in October at Friends’ Cape Horn Preserve to better understand the changes that would be included in the plan when it was finalized. Working together, our goal was to ensure that the final plan was one that we all strongly supported and could be proud of in the months and years ahead.

Building for the future

On Dec. 13, 2022, the Gorge Commission approved the Climate Action Plan with minimal changes. This plan is a significant step forward, but more work lies ahead. The plan is still lacking details to achieve its goals and doesn’t have the regulatory power of the commission’s Management Plan. In the near and distant future, commission staff will determine how the Climate Change Action Plan can be migrated into the Management Plan. Meanwhile, the plan serves as a framework for Gorge partners to support one another and contribute to regional climate goals.

The collaboration of Friends’ staff and Gorge Commission staff to build climate resilience is already yielding tangible results. We’re proud of what has been accomplished by Gorge Commission staff, Friends members and activists, and the invaluable input from Gorge communities. Ongoing teamwork and skillful cooperation will be key as implementation of the Climate Change Action Plan takes place in the coming years.


Rudy Salakory, conservation director | 971-634-2030 |