By Keith Brown, Guest Columnist
Twenty-one years ago my wife Teresa and I bought a log home on the Washougal River in western Skamania County, Washington — a place where salmon and steelhead move up the river; deer, coyote and otters play along the banks; and heron and eagles use the river flyway to hunt and the trees to nest in. With the breathtaking beauty of the West End of the Columbia River Gorge only a few short miles from our doorstep, we truly feel we live in a rural paradise — a wild, special and sacred place.
We quickly learned that if you want to live safely in a beautiful, forested rural area like ours, you better have a strong volunteer fire department and a good emergency medical service. Believing that if we all work together we can make the communities and the world that we live in a better place, we joined the fire department and emergency medical services as volunteers and worked to get levies passed so that the fire and EMS services now have the people, equipment and funding necessary for the safety of both residents and recreational users.
About 12 years ago, two of our friends took us to see parts of a possible trail in the Cape Horn area, not far from our home. It was then we met and got to know Kevin Gorman, executive director of Friends of the Columbia Gorge. Friends had bought the last remaining property required, and removed and recycled the structures that stood in the way of creating the trail. Friends worked with local residents and the US Forest Service, resolving the issues surrounding a possible trail: minimizing fire dangers, reducing the impact of parking on local residents, protecting the peregrine falcon nesting site and rerouting the trail to move away from sensitive Larch Mountain salamander habitat. With each interaction, my respect for Kevin and the Friends grew.
Friends was steadfast in their dedication to the organization’s mission of protecting the National Scenic Area, while they fully engaged with local residents to resolve the concerns. The result? A trail with beautiful vistas from the Cape Horn cliffs that wanders through the magnificent forests and wildflowers — a place that can be enjoyed by all, while protecting the flora and fauna that have made this their home for eons.
It has been a privilege during these past six years to serve on the board of the Friends of the Columbia Gorge, which works “to ensure that the beautiful and wild Columbia Gorge remains a place apart, an unspoiled treasure for generations to come.” First and foremost, Friends is the only conservation advocacy organization dedicated solely to protecting the Columbia River Gorge. Secondly, Friends is a landowner. Its land trust owns and pays taxes on over 1,000 acres, providing hiking and recreation opportunities, while managing the land for long-term protection. Thirdly, they’re educators, leading more than 100 hikes a year, taking people to places they have never seen and learning things they never knew. Lastly, they’re connectors, connecting the landscapes to the communities of the Gorge through projects such as Gorge Towns to Trails, of which the Cape Horn Trail is an integral part.
What I can say is that Friends is an incredibly effective organization, staffed with dedicated people utilizing the knowledge and skills necessary to protect gorge lands, whether it’s through land purchase, legislative or legal action. More than 6,000 members contribute generously, creating the needed funding to carry on this crucial work. Dedicated activists respond with testimony, letters and phone calls to prevent inappropriate development, such as a casino at Cascade Locks, or an ever-increasing glut of oil and coal trains — any of which would have a devastating impact on this incredible landscape, the Columbia Gorge.
Daily, local residents traverse the magnificent Cape Horn Trail, which would not exist were it not for Friends. Thousands of regional and international tourists are now drawn to the area, to the financial enhancement of local businesses. The “Gorge Towns to Trails” vision of a European style, town-to-town hiking experience, encompassing the National Scenic Area (including a trail corridor from Washougal to Stevenson) will one day become a reality. This will create great economic opportunity in a manner that is congruent with this truly unique and magnificent place we are fortunate to call “home.” I would submit that anyone who takes the time to get to know Friends’ efforts and checks the facts, as I have, will find that Friends is making a vital contribution to our Gorge communities.
Keith Brown is a board member of the Friends of the Columbia Gorge and a Skamania County resident.