Shutdown’s lasting effect on Gorge

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category icon Columns, Opinion
The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area (Contributed photos courtesy of Friends of the Columbia Gorge)

By Kevin Gorman, Guest Columnist

Leaders in Congress recently reached an agreement with President Trump to temporarily re-open the full federal government. But the threat of another shutdown looms, and the shadow it casts is of concern not only to federal employees but the many who work and partner with federal agencies to protect, steward and preserve the Gorge.

Beneath the gamesmanship of the partial federal government shutdown is something anyone who pays attention to Gorge geology should understand: erosion. While nature intended for Gorge cliffs and stream beds to erode, the presence of the federal government in the Columbia Gorge was meant to stand firm in perpetuity. Government shutdowns, like the ones before and the ones to follow, eat away at the very foundation of Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area and the impact is not only short-term hardships for federal employees and federal lands, but long-term ramifications for our nation’s most treasured lands.

Government shutdowns have a multiplier effect in places like the Columbia Gorge. When the National Scenic Area was created, it called for federal, state and local governments to work together and for non-profits and community organizations to jump in and engage. The overarching theme was that this was a national scenic area and the interests of the nation’s people must be preserved. That meant the federal government, particularly the U.S. Forest Service, was involved in all aspects of shaping this grand experiment.

The effect at times has been messy, controversial and hard. But the result is something no single government or entity could pull off: a swath of public and private land that has indeed been protected and even enhanced over three decades as population pressures have devastated other scenic locales around the country.

When this shutdown began in December 2018, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service was working with local governments and nonprofits such as Friends of the Columbia Gorge and the Lower Columbia River Estuary Partnership on a $22 million salmon restoration project at Steigerwald Lake. It will be the largest restoration project ever in the Gorge, employing up to 400 people and creating new habitat and new trails for people to enjoy. The shutdown put years of momentum in jeopardy and considering the restoration work can only occur in short windows of the year to avoid disrupting salmon spawning, the timeline for construction may be pushed out which also could impact funding.

A shutdown is equivalent to a single thread being pulled out of a rich, complex tapestry. Even with the government temporarily reopened, the unraveling cannot be undone; a lesser version of its old self will simply carry on.

We also can’t expect a quick return to the effectiveness and efficiency that existed prior to the shutdown. According to recent reports, it may take federal agencies months to get fully back up to speed after the historic 35-day furlough. Some may think that reopening the government should be equivalent to turning a light switch back on and instantly receiving 100 percent of the light you did before. A better example is the image of the flywheel that author Jim Collins lays out in his bestseller, “Good to Great.” Picture a massive metal flywheel, standing 30 feet high, several feet thick and weighing thousands of pounds. Your job is to turn that axle as fast and long as possible.

It’s a huge undertaking and with a lot of work it just barely starts creeping along. More pushing moves it along a little faster and eventually, this giant wheel, almost unmovable in the beginning, is spinning quickly with little effort.

That flywheel evolution is what I have witnessed in the Gorge over the past several decades when all partners, especially the federal government, are engaged, focused and funded. Stuff happens and it’s exciting to be part of it. The shutdown threw a big stick into our flywheel and getting back to where we were will undoubtedly take far longer than the actual time of the shutdown.

I look forward to catching up with the federal employees who were furloughed, whether it is in meetings or out in the field. I’m sure I’ll gently tease them about the slow pace of getting their projects back up to speed and they’ll good-naturedly roll their eyes about my unrealistic expectations. Then we’ll catch up on stories about our families and fall back into the world we occupied before the shutdown. But missing from that world is one more thread from the beautiful tapestry we work so hard to protect. The Gorge is too precious, too sacred, to allow its wonder to unravel one thread at a time.

Kevin Gorman is the executive director of Friends of the Columbia Gorge. He can be reached by emailing