Suppose you owned a diamond worth $1 billion with a brilliance that is almost hypnotic. Every member of your large family wanted a piece of it. You obliged. But one day the diamond cutter’s tool slipped, and the spectacular orb shattered into a thousand pieces. Its value plummeted.
The Columbia River Gorge is like that diamond. It is a priceless treasure of unequaled scenery, more than 75 waterfalls, open space and heritage. But two longtime gorge lumber companies – SDS and Broughton, with a common board of directors and Jason Spadero as chief executive of both – have turned toward development and wind power.
Broughton wants to build a resort in the gorge, which would chip the “diamond.” The same outfits propose to combine their lands for a “farm” of wind-driven, power-generating propellers visible from the gorge. Another chip. On the south side of the gorge, the Warm Springs tribes lobby to build a gambling casino. Chip again. Developers and private land owners, seeking profits, but not respect for this hallowed place, fight to build houses and subdivisions. Chip. Chip. Chip.
To the east, Portland General Electric’s coal-fired generation plant poisons the air, and sends it west through the gorge in wintertime. PGE and other sources feed a mix of pollutants into the sky, and acid rain falls. The rain, so far not harmful to humans, kills delicate plants called lichen and over time dissolves rock, including Native American petroglyphs.
Finally, with the diamond destroyed by endless chipping, there is no scenic paradise, no open space and no legacy to display. Is this what you want for the future of the Columbia River Gorge?
There always has been development pressure on the gorge, even after Congress passed the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act and President Reagan signed it in 1986 to protect 292,500 acres. In 1988, the Broughton Lumber Co. sought to subdivide 108.5 acres into three parcels for residential development. Broughton also questioned the jurisdiction of the new Scenic Area regulators. The Gorge Commission and its director denied the request. Broughton appealed the decision to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals which, in 1992, upheld the Gorge Commission.
Invasion of resorts is feared
Now, Broughton wants to convert the 200-acre Broughton mill site into a destination resort – Broughton Landing – with 250 units and condominiums. It would require a rule change applicable only to the defunct mill site near White Salmon. There are already 13 urban areas in the gorge exempt from Scenic Area rules: Cascade Locks, Hood River, Mosier, The Dalles, North Bonneville, Stevenson, Carson, Home Valley, White Salmon, Bingen, Lyle, Dallesport and Wishram. Any would likely welcome a $70 million Broughton resort. Commission Executive Director Jill Arens maintains the mill rule is not precedent-setting. But Ron Carroll, a Mosier businessman, called the proposal a “Trojan horse” at a Feb. 12 public hearing.
The concern is that approval would allow other private, gated resorts in the gorge. Arens said the commission is expected to make its decision at an April 8 meeting. The issue has been clouded by disclosure that two renegade Gorge Commission members – Jim Middaugh, Portland and Honna Sheffield, Skamania, acting without knowledge of the full commission – asked the Department of Ecology to investigate possible industrial contamination at the Broughton mill site.
Meanwhile, a new group, “Save Our Scenic Area,” has filed suit against Skamania County to prevent 44 wind turbines from being erected on SDS/Broughton land within sight of the gorge. SDS President Jason Spadero said his firm hasn’t yet filed an application.
In a March 17 column in The Oregonian, David Wu, Oregon’s 1st District congressman, opposed a tribal casino at either Cascade Locks or Hood River, saying a 600,000-square-foot casino with a million-square-foot parking lot “would further harm one of Oregon’s most scenic and ecologically sensitive areas.”
The primary purpose of the Columbia River National Scenic Area Act is “to protect and provide for enhancement of the scenic, cultural, recreational and natural resources” of the gorge. Unless there is greater public support for the ranks of protectors, this sacred place of unequaled natural beauty will be destroyed piece by piece, chip by chip.
Tom Koenninger is editor emeritus of The Columbian.
26 March 2008
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