VetsWork: Preserving the Integrity, Beauty, and Values of the Nation’s Largest Scenic Area

The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area or “Scenic Area” exists as the largest scenic area in the country — a living souvenir of a vision manifested by a group of forward thinking land stewards.  As Muir and Pinchot before her, Nancy Russell foresaw the threat imposed by rapid encroachment from the Portland area on the unspoiled swath of beauty reaching east along the Columbia River from Sandy to the confluence with the Rogue River.  As a direct result of her vision, President Nixon signed the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act into existence in 1986.  This Act set forth a management plan, to be run by the Forest Service, to balance the need for conservation in the Gorge with a caveat allowing for economic use.  Thirty years later, the Gorge exists as a unique entity whose beauty is frozen in time yet financially feasible for the small towns dotting its pastoral landscape.

Ecologically speaking, the Scenic Area exists as a network of basalt columned hiking trails linking sea level rain forests adorned with copious waterfalls on the West end to the plateaued grasslands further East.  The area also acts as a bridge between two of my favorite volcanic peaks.  Mount Hood to the south compliments the namesake Mount Adams and the old growth forests of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest to the north.  In my hometowns in California and Colorado similar areas have fallen prey to the growth and expansion of human desire.  It is this unique nature of the area — the raw beauty of steep canyons flanked with old growth Western Red Cedar contrasted with a thriving recreational community — that originally pulled me from my other endeavors to work for the Forest Service in this area.

White River Sno-Park on the Mt. Hood National Forest.

Inside the Guler Ice Caves of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest.

This myriad of interests is managed by the special uses division of the Scenic Area.  My initial couple of weeks came with a steep learning curve, and I’ve come to find that the Scenic Area represents a nexus of challenges in the world of conservation.  The list of entities is daunting in the least — impossible at best.  We must tackle permits relating to everything from civil interests, hydroelectric power authorities, and county regulatory committees to Wild and Scenic river management, outfitter and guide uses, land owner interests, tribal concerns, and partner organization rights.  One entity that does not exist in the area is the logging and mining claims present on almost every forest in our country.  On this day, I look out my window to see the oldest form of management — resource extraction — roll by in the form of lumber harvested from the nearby Mount Hood district. 

View from the Scenic Area office.

What I find most interesting is that the special uses department accounts for a greater financial income with a far smaller staff than timber sales on all National Forests in the country.  In either instance, I’ve come to find that those who use the National Forests for either recreation or resource extraction do so at an incredible value, whether they recognize it or not, and I hope to increase the perception of recreational value during my tenure here.

Central to all government oversight is the foundation in public law.  I started my experience by learning the overall legal authorities from which all policies are written.  Public laws such as NEPA, FLPMA, and a half dozen other laws set the bounds from which all decisions are made concerning permit writing.  Between those bounds exists a grey area from which experience and an artistic touch must be used to communicate the needs of the land to those wishing to benefit from its recreational and commercial use.

During my first month, my experiences have met my expectations concerning variability and complexity.  I met with local whitewater and fly-fishing guides to amend an issue with their permits for the current year to reflect their anticipated use.  I was afforded a particular weeklong opportunity to attend a training on SUDS, a program used to track all of the permits, in Sandy, Oregon with the savants of the special uses world.  Back in the office, I’ve worked on other permits ranging from power line access and maintenance to a rather comical noncommercial gathering of Sherlock Holmes enthusiasts for a one hour bagpipe serenading session at Multnomah Falls — costumes mandatory.  To ensure continuity of quality I’ve attended annual inspections of concessionaires and power authorities.  I’ve answered questions from prospective brides-to-be concerning legitimacy of their future ceremony to drone use logistics by major motion picture companies at iconic waterfalls.  In short, it’s been an all-encompassing jump into the world of special uses permitting.

Performing a site inspection at Multnomah Falls.

Besides the work, my supervisor and the other employees in the office have provided inspiration through the work they do day in and day out to maintain the scenic integrity of what I consider one of the most beautiful places in the our country.  In an office in downtown Hood River, 40 employees, mostly of GS-11 and above, work extremely hard to process and meet the needs of the millions of visitors and thousands of residents whom live within the 284,000-acre Scenic Area boundary.  They do all of this on an incredibly limited budget — one that is only going to decrease by a significant percentage as the upcoming national plan for force shaping unrolls itself.  Most of the employees have a workload equivalent to two or three times what I’ve seen in the private sector — and they do it for less pay.  It’s been a humbling realization that our government provides an incredible service for far less a financial commitment than is perceived by the general public, or myself for that matter, before this experience.  I look forward to learning more about the Forest Service and how this work, this service, translates value and properly manages the vision set forth by those before me.