The east end of the Columbia Gorge is a completely different world from the wetter region of the west. Here the land opens up to an infinite sky and Oregon white oaks root together in isolated groves along with the occasional Ponderosa pine. The windswept countryside, though parched and brown in summer, is a riot of color in the spring. From miles away one can see hillsides splashed with the yellows of balsamroot or desert parsley and the deep blue of lupines. This view is in Washington's Columbia Hills Natural Area Preserve near The Dalles.
On a particularly lovely afternoon I had thin high clouds that provided diffuse light and nearly windless conditions, perfect for photography. When sitting quietly in a spot like this I'm made deeply aware of how blessed we are to have this magnificent scenery to marvel at and draw from to restore the soul. I'm also made aware of our responsibility to protect these landscapes to enjoy forever.
The vista you see here is quite tangible, yet what's difficult to quantify is understanding how to weigh the value it has in its unspoiled state compared to interests that wish to exploit the land for economic benefit. In a nutshell, this is the conundrum central to preserving the Columbia Gorge for future generations. While the land in this photo is protected, I can turn the camera from the northern view here to the east and see a slow, inexorable approach of wind turbines moving westward like a strange forest of manmade trees with spinning aluminum blades. It's a sickening spectacle to watch. They are the product of policies that encourage renewable energy without considering the cost of destroying the untouched views of the landscape that become harder to find with each passing year. While I think that carbon-neutral energy is a good idea, it is not without impact and to adopt it at the pace we have fails to consider the more complicated picture of whether we can take other measures to conserve energy and reduce our demand for it without building so many of these monstrosities. The growth in our energy demand is considered inviolate and no one is allowed to question it.
2011 is a special year because it's the 25th anniversary of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act. While visionary back in 1986, now it shows signs of strain as technology and development interests have had time to develop strategies that reduce its ability to protect the region. When the act was written no one knew about wind turbines and the impacts they create. Today it's perfectly legal to place a 400-foot wind turbine tower just outside the scenic area boundary. The impact it would have inside the boundary is exactly the same, yet the law is powerless to stop this flagrant abuse of the spirit of the legislation.
Sadly, I hiked to the summit of Dog Mountain in the central Columbia Gorge on May 10, 2011 and now the turbines are visible from the upper third of the trail. The scenic character of the Gorge has been changed for at least the next generation and it seems to have happened overnight. I called Portland General Electric, whose turbines are responsible for this, and removed the "green energy" payment from my power bill that I'd paid faithfully for years, trusting them to be good stewards of my dollars.
The only way we will learn how important these places are is to make sure more people see them and understand how our growing population, approaching seven billion later in 2011, and its appetite for energy slowly steal them from us, bit by bit, until no one remembers what we've lost. We all need to ask questions of the authorities that approve development projects, rather than trust that government has our best interests at heart. Dollars are a poor yardstick to gauge the importance of untouched natural beauty. Photographs are better, but the best way I've found is to sit in a meadow, watch, listen, smell, and feel the sun and wind on my skin.