Property Rights Foundation of America®

A Brutal Model Program for the Heritage Corridors
A Few Notes on the Columbia River Gorge Commission

by Carol W. LaGrasse, from Positions on Property, Vol. 1, No. 2, Supplement (PRFA, May 1994)

One of the models for the management of the National Heritage Corridors is the Columbia River Gorge Commission. While the promised federal moneys have only partially materialized, the iron hand of the interstate, appointed Gorge Commission, which is tied to the National Forest Service, has indeed been discernible to individual property owners and the economy.

Preservationists first sought the area as a national park during the 1930s. After a battle that lasted over fifty years, the "Friends of the Gorge" won in 1986, when President Reagan signed the law proclaiming the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area in Washington and Oregon over local objections. Like similar legislation all over the United States, this program has a sop to the "economy." Among its objectives are this euphemistic inconsistency to protect and support the economy of the Gorge by encouraging growth to occur in existing urban areas and allowing future economic development outside those areas it deemed compatible with the objectives of federal legislation. The Forest Service set up interim regulations for the area until the six counties submitted their own rules to meet the appointed Commission's approval, in effect giving up their local zoning plans to be the enforcement agents for the federal interstate commission. This is a typical arrangement. Even with local annointees, the Commission is essentially a preservation agency with no emphasis on economic considerations.

The Columbia River Gorge Act did not respect grandfathering. During the interim period, the Forest Service had the power to shut down non-conforming uses such as rock quarries.

As in other greenways, a land acquisition fund was set up to implement the unconstitutional principle of inverse condemnation so that land that is zoned for "open space" can be officially bought from hard-pressed landowners.

Since the federal bi-state commission has been existence, many property owners have suffered unjustly. One couple who lived in a mobile home to save money for ten years for a log home is the subject of an eviction by the Commission. An elderly 40-year resident who is a widow and descendant of a homesteading family was denied the right to divide her 335 acres among her children or the right to sell off land she had bought to support her retirement and finance the replacement of her decaying home. A farmer who needed to sell 26 acres to cover his $2,000 yearly tax bite, which could not be met by his $2,100 yearly income from hay, pasture and timber sales, was turned down.

And symptomatic of the overall decline and betrayal, the tiny declining town of Bridal Veil was acquired by a land trust, the Trust for Public Land, and the last residents who were holding out forced to move with a trumped-up asbestos scare. The history of Bridal Veil did not matter to the Trust for Public Land. It was only an old mill town, with its little church and a few remaining houses "out of place" in the majestic Columbia River Gorge.

On top of this decline, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has identified the Columbia River Gorge as one of ten "special emphasis" areas for critical spotted owl habitat. These areas, whether government or private lands, will be subject to the most restrictive of harvest regulations. Only 60 percent of the standing timber will be allowed to be harvested, and the rules disallow any timber harvest at all within a 3,827 acre circle of an owl nest. (1)

When the special emphasis areas were promulgated, the local assessor in Skamania County, Washington, said that of 1,070,272 acres in the county 937,916 were tax exempt or federal. "She said that every time a new change in regulations occurs a little piece of county revenue is lost and less funds are available for public services such as law enforcement, county roads, senior services programs and the criminal justice system." (2)

One of the ways that the tax base is affected is that the designations of lands as "open space" under the Columbia River Gorge act cuts assessments to "current use" from "highest and best use," further straining the local tax base by shifting more burden to the declining amount of land that retains economic value. Zoning in a greenlined area always creates an ever-increasing tax burden on fewer and fewer property owners.

The farmer turned down from selling his 26 acres commented: "Skamania County is headed for rough times, for my situation seems to be the wave of the future, Who will pay the taxes?" (3)

Barely more than a century ago, the Columbia River Gorge region was pioneered. Dams, logging flumes and railroad trestles overcame the sheer scale and steepness of terrain that are awesome. Not only do environmentalists have disdain for the monuments to this spirit and for the descendants of these people, but here—as elsewhere—they want to eradicate all traces of them.

 

footnotes

(1) "County Worries over future" Skamania County Pioneer, February 9, 1994
(2) Ibid
(3)
"Left With Nothing," Letter to Editor by Eric Haight, Skamania County Pioneer, Dec. 30, 1992

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