The Gorge is healing with less ‘invasive motor vehicle traffic’

The Historic Columbia River Highway could be amazing — forever.
(Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

“These flourishing conditions are sobering when we consider how little it takes to alter the ecosystem — the presence of even a few hundred more cars per day drastically changes this area.”
— Paul Pastor

It has now been over three months since the State of Oregon closed about 14 miles of the Historic Columbia River Highway in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The closure from Larch Mountain Road in Corbett to Ainsworth State Park has been a bummer for bike riders and other people who want to access one of the most beautiful roads in America.

But the animals are loving it.

Bridal Veil resident and writer Paul Pastor has seen with his own eyes and ears what’s possible in the Gorge when we remove the daily assault of thousands of cars and trucks. I came across a letter from Pastor written as a public comment in advance of an upcoming meeting of the Historic Columbia River Highway Advisory Committee. For anyone who’s dreamed of having fewer cars on the Historic Highway, his thoughts are worth a read:

“The unique conditions caused by the road closure of the Historic Columbia River Highway due to COVID-19 have created a powerful reminder of the impact of traffic on the delicate and rich environment here. The massive reduction of noise, light, and air pollution from cars has allowed residents along this corridor to see what ‘normal’ conditions would be in the absence of heavy, persistent, and invasive motor vehicle traffic. The difference is notable and unforgettable.


We have seen a healthy profusion of deer, elk, and coyote, and even signs of one lone (and shy) cougar. We’ve also noted a remarkable abundance of local and migratory birds, including several species that we (dedicated birdwatchers) have never observed here before. Apex predators like osprey, bald eagles, red-tailed hawks, and several species of owls are thriving.

These flourishing conditions are sobering when we consider how little it takes to alter the ecosystem — the presence of even a few hundred more cars per day drastically changes this area, let alone the overwhelming flow of traffic on peak days. While access to the waterfall corridor is vital to maintain and encourage, we residents of Waterfall Alley continue to ask for measures to be taken to reduce the human impact on this fragile and pristine environment in coming years. All measures to educate the public on lower impact recreation matter–especially when it comes to reducing traffic, encouraging “digital leave no trace” practices to reduce social media mobbing of popular tourist sites and trails, and other ways to mitigate our inevitable human impact on this special place.

As conversations continue about the future of this corridor, let’s remember the Spring of 2020 as a unique insight into what this place can be if we learn to tread more lightly on it. It’s beautiful.”

Could it still happen?

Speaking of those “conversations,” it’s been two years since we reported on ODOT’s plans to create a carfree lane on the Historic Highway to help reduce congestion, improve safety, and to improve access for bicycle riders and walkers. The exciting idea emerged from a year-long, $400,000 effort that culminated in the Congestion & Transportation Safety Improvement Plan. The initial thought was to try this out as party of a “phased re-opening” of the highway following closures from the Eagle Creek Fire.

Unfortunately, rockslides delayed the re-opening and then it seems like ODOT got cold feet (and/or a cold shoulder from agency leaders) and never pulled the trigger.

With another closure on our hands thanks to COVID-19, there might be another opportunity to do something bold.

At their meeting in May, committee member Kathy Fitzpatrick said (according to meeting minutes):

“Now, during the COVID-19 disruption of the status quo, is the ideal time to implement these types of pilot projects… The consequence of doing nothing now could result in the post-COVID carmageddon that transportation professionals are warning us about. Any reopening phases of the waterfall corridor need to move us closer to our stated goals, not further away.”

The committee meets again on Monday (7/13) and a discussion of the congestion mitigation plan is on the agenda. Stay tuned.

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and
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