The success of the congressional act that established the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area - approved 25 years ago this month - can be measured in large part by what hasn't happened on the thousands of acres of land extending east of Troutdale.

Today, we see no strip malls and condominiums spreading into the gorge. We see no proliferation of second homes - no carving up of this spectacular land into mini-estates.

Rather, the gorge remains as a protected treasure for all to enjoy, and along the way, much has been done to invigorate the economies of the communities that fall within the scenic area's boundaries.

Today, there's a broad consensus that saving the gorge from the possibility of over-development was the right thing to do. But it's also worth recalling that passage of the scenic area act was a messy, contentious and complicated process that required the heavy hand of the federal government.

Former U.S. Sen. Mark Hatfield was at the height of his political skills when he shepherded this legislation through Congress. While he wanted to ensure that the most sensitive lands in the gorge would be protected, Hatfield was far from unsympathetic to economic needs in the gorge. As a consequence, the scenic area act includes strong provisions for encouraging economic development within the 13 cities and towns in the gorge.

Twenty-five years after the law's passage, the gorge's economy has been helped through grants and targeted investments in an interpretive center, conference center and other visitor-related facilities. Its tourism economy has exploded with the help of entrepreneurs who've developed whole new industries around wine and wind surfing.

Not everyone would agree, of course, that all is perfect in the gorge, or that the economy has received equal weight to the preservation of natural areas. Even now, arguments continue over land use and the economy - and most currently over a proposal to build two gas-powered electrical plants just west of the scenic area.

But even after 25 years, the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act still stands as an example of what government can accomplish for the common good. In today's hyper-partisan environment - and at a time when people lack confidence in government in general - it's hard to imagine that big, complicated tasks can be achieved. Yet, the relatively pristine Columbia River Gorge provides a constant reminder that it is important to try - and to succeed.

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