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American Society of Landscape Architects


October 2006 Issue

Roll On, Columbia
A landscape architect fits a weekend getaway into a National Scenic Area.

By Adam Regn Arvidson

Roll On, Columbia Photography by Alejandro Barragan

East of Portland, Oregon, harsh cliffs contrast powerfully with the wide, flat Columbia River. Cargo-laden 18-wheelers fly at 70 mph up Interstate 84, while river-bound tugs wrestle barges through tedious locks. Forestry, orchards, and agriculture share the local economy with second-home development, coffee cafés, and board shops for the windsurfing set. With all this inherent contradiction it is perhaps only natural, then, that local (and national) views of the Columbia Gorge would end up, well, in opposition. Is this a recreational amenity, rich with history and nature to be enjoyed by all comers? Or is this a working landscape, with excellent access to hydropower, wood, minerals, and a diversity in climate that offers endless agricultural possibilities? Or can it be both?

These questions played out in the Columbia Gorge most tangibly in the early 1980s and eventually led to the creation of this country’s first National Scenic Area. These questions also play out nearly every day, with every development application that winds its course through the convoluted, multiagency regulatory system here. What brings this all to light at this particular moment is that, in the midst of a region that’s still struggling to come to terms with itself, there is a house on a little plot of land that seems so opposite of most development here in the gorge, and, in being different, is managing to fulfill the intent of the National Scenic Area.

The Columbia Gorge has a complex and fascinating history, filled with geologic, economic, and social upheaval. Geographically speaking, the gorge begins just east of Portland, near the Sandy River, and runs upstream about 70 miles to The Dalles, Oregon. It is essentially the only gash in the Pacific Northwest’s mighty Cascade Mountains, which has made it a key transportation corridor throughout history. Ecologically speaking, the gorge is divided almost equally in half, with forests of lush fir coating the rain-soaked western slopes and a sparser mix of pine, oak, and scrub on the dry, rocky tablelands in the east. Socially speaking, this is the tenuous meeting point of the resource-based Old West and the recreation/technology-based New West. These terms as applied to the gorge and the detailed account of their uncomfortable mixture come from Planning a New West, the quintessential story of the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area told by Portland State University professors Carl Abbott and Sy Adler and transportation specialist Margery Post Abbott.

In a nutshell (and if you want some juicy tidbits, read the book), the story of this nation’s first (and still only) National Scenic Area (NSA) is about balancing opposites. The gorge is rich in timber and agricultural potential, and that has created a 100-plus-year-old resource-based economy sustained and enriched by huge public works projects like the Bonneville and Dalles dams. But the gorge is also beautiful, especially the western half, which boasts one of the highest concentrations of waterfalls in the country (77 on the Oregon side alone), tight rocky riverbanks, and striking mountains of tortured black basalt clad with firs clinging to cliffs by their root tips. Natural beauty tends to stir the passions of the well-heeled, so Portlanders have (also for a hundred or so years) seen the gorge as their own playground. These two views of the same landscape inevitably end up at odds, especially when the landscape in question lies in two states and six counties.

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