In the 1970s, the Portland metropolitan area grew beyond its home counties and developers began to propose and build new subdivisions and communities farther up river toward Stevenson in Washington and Hood River in Oregon. Clear-cut logging and gravel mining also eroded the gorge's beauty. The area was experiencing a decades-long decline in the forest products industry and continuing loss of jobs. Residents who worked in Portland and Vancouver promised to bring badly needed pay checks. Tourism also began to grow as thousands of windsurfers discovered the gorge's winds. To local residents, development meant not just prosperity, but survival. To environmentalists, growth threatened a breathtaking resource.
The area included 13 towns and cities governed by some 50 governmental entities and regulatory bodies under the laws of two states.
In 1979, Chuck Williams, a former official with Friends of the Earth, helped organize the Columbia Gorge Coalition to write legislation to manage growth along a river shared by two states. By 1983, the coalition drew fierce opposition from residents who created Columbia Gorge United. Obtaining any consensus for legislation among the officials of two states and their federal representatives took five years. The bill was generally popular in urban areas and unpopular among rural residents who were resistant to control of their land by the federal government.
By October 1986, Senators Bob Packwood, R. Oregon, Dan Evans (b. 1925), R. Washington, Slade Gorton, R. Washington, and Mark Hatfield (1922-2011), R. Oregon, crafted a law that would create a 12-member commission of local residents who would manage development and industrial use of separate management areas. The last compromise was over the powers of the commission, which would be obligated to take enforcement action against violations of its rules, but could decide the measures to be taken. Senator Slade Gorton's influence with fellow Republicans helped advance the measure past conservatives. The Senate passed the bill on October 8. A nearly identical House bill nearly died in the Rules committee, but was finally sent to the floor and passed on October 17. President Ronald Reagan signed the act into law.
The Skamania County Republican Central Committee was so infuriated by Gorton's support of the bill that it asked voters to support his opponent, Democrat Brock Adams, in the November election (Adams narrowly won).