About the Forest

The Columbia River Gorge is a spectacular river canyon, 80 miles long and up to 4,000 feet deep, cutting the only sea level route through the Cascade Mountain Range. The river's gentle meanders pass through cliffs, spires, and ridges set against distant peaks shaped by ancient volcanoes and floods, making the Gorge a scenic wonderland. Yet, the Gorge is rich in cultural history, and remains home to 75,000 people, resource dependent communities, farms and schools. Due to its geography as a key route through the Cascades, it remains a vital transportation and communication corridor where trains, barges, and highways support an interstate commerce, and natural forces generate wind and hydrologic power.

About the National Scenic Area

PhotoThe nation’s second National Scenic Area, the Columbia River Gorge is an ambitious protected area where thriving urban centers, bucolic hills, and wild beauty co-exist in close proximity. It was a vision that took shape after many years of public debate about how to protect the Gorge's wild beauty while preserving the region's cultural history and economic vitality. Designated by the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act, the National Scenic Area is not a wilderness or park, but a 292,500 acre patchwork of public and private lands managed by the USDA Forest Service and it's partner, the Columbia River Gorge Commission.

The Forest Service is a federal land management agency with a mission to sustain the nation's forests and grasslands. In addition to National Forests, the agency conducts world-class research and manages various scenic and recreational sites for future generations, in service of "the greatest good." The Forest Service manages all National Forest System lands within the boundaries of the Scenic Area, administers recreation facilities on those lands, assists in resource protection programs, and provides technical assistance to help counties manage their land use. State, private, tribal, and county lands within the Scenic Area's boundaries are protected through a collaborative approach directed by the Act.

Our Mission

On Nov. 17, 1986. President Ronald Reagan signed into law the Act that created the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.

The purpose of the National Scenic Area is clearly spelled out in the Act that created us: to protect and provide for the enhancement of the scenic, cultural, recreational and natural resources of the Gorge; and to protect and support the economy of the Columbia River Gorge area by encouraging growth to occur in existing urban areas and by allowing future economic development.

Due to our unique enabling legislation, the land use and land management approach to the Gorge retains existing rural and scenic characteristics of the Gorge while encouraging compatible growth and development within urban areas. 

Partnerships with State, County, and Tribal Governments

As called for by our Act, we work closely with a bi-state regional planning agency, the Columbia River Gorge Commission, which was created by an inter-state compact between the states of Oregon and Washington. The Act also directs us to work with six counties with land in the Scenic Area, state agencies, and Four Treaty Tribes. 

The Columbia River Gorge Commission has several responsibilities under the Act, including planning for the Scenic Area, implementation of the National Scenic Area's Management Plan, and monitoring and hearing appeals of land-use decisions. Twelve voting members are appointed by the governors of Oregon and Washington and the six counties within the National Scenic area. One non-voting Forest Service member represents the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture.

The local counties and the Gorge Commission are responsible for drafting and enforcing land-use ordinances to implement the Management Plan.

Urban Areas

Thirteen Oregon and Washington communities within the National Scenic Area are designated as Urban Areas, totaling 28,500 acres that fall under this designation. Although these areas are exempt from the land-use regulation aspects of the legislation, they are the focus of most economic development activities implementing the second purpose of the Act.

The legislation encourages industrial and commercial development in the Urban Areas by prohibiting or limiting new such uses outside of Urban Areas. As in the past, local jurisdictions are responsible for regulating and administering lands in the Urban Areas.

General Management Areas

There are 149,400 acres designated as "General Management Areas," including 31,500 acres of the Columbia River. The Act allows for a variety of land uses and activities in the General Management Areas including most uses and activities that existed as of the date of the Act, such as compatible residential and commercial development, forestry activities, and compatible mineral exploration and development. New industrial development is prohibited. Specific land-use designations and lists of allowed uses are given in the Management Plan.

Special Management Areas

The 114,600 acres designed at Special Management Areas are the most environmentally or visually sensitive lands, so activities are more restricted here than in other parts of the Scenic Area.

The Act allows: most current uses and activities as of the date of the Act, compatible residential construction on land parcels 40 acres or more, recreational facility construction, agricultural uses and compatible forest management activities.

The Act prohibits: new land divisions, most commercial facilities, new industrial facilities, residential construction on parcels less than 40 acres, and most development and use of mineral resources.

Management Plan

The Act required that the Gorge Commission, with assistance from the Forest Service, prepare a comprehensive Management Plan to achieve the purposes of the Act. The Management Plan was adopted by the Columbia River Gorge Commission on October 15, 1991 and concurred with by the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture on February 13, 1992.

Initital planning last four years, involving government agencies at all levels, American Indian tribal governments, residents and landowners, and all other interested groups. This collaborative effort developed goals and objectives, development guidelines and non-regulatory strategies for protecting and enhancing the Gorge's resources.

The development guidelines in the Management Plan include the land-use designations that control minimum parcel sizes and allowable uses, and guidelines to protect the scenic, cultural, natural and recreation resources of the Gorge. The non-regulatory part of the Management Plan is an array of programs and specific projects for enhancing the Gorge resources, increasing public recreation opportunities, and fostering economic development. These protection and enhancement mechanisms are carried out by all of the National Scenic Area partners.


Monitoring is an important part of the National Scenic Area Act. The Gorge Commission is directed to develop and carry out an comprehensive monitoring program in conjunction with all of the Scenic Area partners. This monitoring program must determine if the resources of the Gorge are, in fact, being protected and enhanced. The focus of the program will be changes in the Gorge resources and implementation of land-use ordinances.

Land Use Ordinances

All new development and land uses must be reviewed in the National Scenic Area to determine if they are consistent with the Act and the implementing land-use ordinances. The development guidelines of the Management Plan are implemented through land-use ordinances which must be consistent with the Management Plan. The Act requires counties to adopt and enforce land ordinances that are consistent with the Management Plan. For counties that do not yet have a consistent land-use ordinance, the Gorge Commission has adopted and enforces ordinances.

Many uses that were once unregulated (such as new cultivation) now require permits in the National Scenic Area. Landowners are encouraged to check with their county or the Gorge Commission before initiating any new land use or development.

Land Acquisition and Exchanges

The Act authorized the Forest Service to acquire and exchange lands in the Special Management Area to achieve the purposes of the Act if the owners wish to sell or exchange their lands. Parcels or land are analyzed on a case by case basis to determine priority for acquisition.

Economic Opportunities

The Act authorizes $10 million in economic development grants and loans for projects consistent with the National Scenic Area objectives. Another $5 million each is authorized for an interpretive center in Oregon (The Columbia River Gorge Discovery Center) and a conference center (Skamania Lodge) in Washington; and another $10 million is authorized for recreation facilities.

The Oregon Department of Transportation is authorized $2.8 million to restore portions of the Historic Columbia River Highway.

Economic opportunity and development studies have been prepared by both the Gorge Commission and the two states to determine suitable projects for the grants and loans. A number of these projects are underway.

Wild & Scenic Rivers

The Act designated 11.1 miles of the Lower Klickitat River as a National Recreation River, and 7.7 miles of the Lower White Salmon River as a National Scenic River. The Act directed the Forest Service to develop management plans for these portions. In addition, the Act calls for completion of Wild and Scenic River Suitability Studies on other segments of the Klickitat and White Salmon Rivers. These studies and management plans have been completed by the Forest Service.