One of the great tragedies of the Columbia River National Scenic Area Act (signed into law on November 17, 1986) was the crude delineation of what should be protected and what should not. The official boundary was eventually determined by pulling in terrain that could be viewed from the river, and from a scenic resources perspective, this was a fair starting point.
But the flaw in this thinking is that nature rarely follows clear boundaries, and some of the most precious lands in the Gorge were excluded by virtue of being hidden from view. It’s times to correct that oversight. It was also automobile-centric, since gorge visitors on foot, bicycle or horseback are likely to visit the high points and overlooks that have a broader viewshed.
One such area is Hood River Mountain. Hikers flock to the area, though few realize that they’re hiking on private land (despite a sign stating so). Still fewer know that the land they are hiking on has no protection from the Columbia River National Scenic Area, though the Columbia River can be seen below. Without Oregon’s strict statewide planning, this area would be maze of roads and trophy homes by now. Instead, the mountain survives largely intact, in big parcels owned by a Washington timber company.
But not all of Hood River Mountain was spared. The northern extent had already been divided into smaller parcels by the time Oregon’s planning laws were enacted in the 1970s, and today these parcels are in high demand for trophy homes. The dwelling pictured at the top of this article was recently constructed on one such parcel, scarring the mountain forever with a quarter-mile driveway. This gouge across the delicate sloped meadows of arrowleaf balsamroot threatens to destabilize sensitive soils, placing an important ecosystem at risk.
This development on the northern tier of Hood River Mountain is a jarring reminder that in the short term, the scenic area boundary must be revisited to identify rare or endangered ecosystems, or other important resources that abut the line. Adjusting the boundary in these areas would open the door to federal protections and public acquisition of these sites over time.
In the long-term, the more difficult question of acquiring and either removing, or re-purposing some of the more egregious trophy homes must be addressed. The Forest Service has rarely crossed this line, largely due to lack of adequate funding for acquisition to begin with. Someday, this will be an important part of the restoration vision of the Mount Hood National Park Campaign. But for now, simply stopping the bleeding is a more pragmatic goal. The Forest Service must receive more funding to accelerate private acquisitions.
The State of Oregon and local governments can also help on this front. The state and local jurisdictions could offer a tax incentive for trophy-home owners in high-profile locations to eventually deed these homes to the public for demolition, removal or reuse as a public facility.
In the meantime, the counties that issue permits for rural trophy homes can raise the bar for what they are willing to accept in engineering as geotechnical justifications for these projects. The Forest Service could assist the counties in providing an enhanced permit process, as a strategy for preventing the least sustainable eyesores from slipping through.
Non-profit land advocates are already important partners in addressing both the short and long-term problem. Today, at least three of these organizations have begun to acquire private lands in the Gorge, and are advocating for expanding the scenic area boundaries to encompass more endangered lands. Since the non-profits are not bound by official designations, and could begin working immediately with landowners to acquire land at overlooked places like Hood River Mountain, they offer the potential to work far in advance of the federal bureaucracy.
Each of us can help by supporting the non-profits who do this work. Most prominent are the Trust for Public Lands, Friends of the Columbia Gorge and the Nature Conservancy. You can find contact information for all three in this directory of organizations. Consider joining or simply contributing to one of these groups, and helping protect some of our most unique landscapes so that they may someday be intact or rehabilitated — as part of the Mount Hood National Park vision.