A June 3 news story about a battle in Oregon between a single property owner, who insists on siting his house atop bluffs overlooking the Columbia River Gorge, and environmental groups can serve as a touchstone for a discussion of conservation and environmental protection here in our region.

On the banks of the Potomac River above Washington, stately mansions line the Virginia palisades from Chain Bridge to Great Falls. They are scattered among a patchwork of local and federal parks and nature preserves such as Scott's Run Nature Preserve, Dranesville District Park and Great Falls National Park.

I am fortunate to be afforded a glimpse of these magnificent mansions while canoeing along the Potomac. The lovely homes are three or four times the size of an average, middle-class home to the south of them in Fairfax County. Row upon row of windows afford what must be spectacular views of bends in the river snaking east and west.

I envy these homeowners' views and the opportunity they have to watch the sun rise and set over the river and see the river rise and fall each passing year.

But each time I canoe past these homes, I wonder why these beautiful locations atop the bluffs aren't in the public domain. Ah, I tell myself, this is the story of America in a nutshell: The affluent can afford to purchase and retain some of the most inspiring landscapes and vistas in our nation. It's the American way.

But to whom should these natural areas belong? Should one- or two-dozen private homeowners be privy to these views at the expense of a million residents who would benefit from a single visit to them?

Mather Gorge and adjacent sections of the Potomac are about as close to a wilderness as one can get in this crowded metropolitan area. If this is so, is it possible to extend this "wilderness" by gradually purchasing more property?

On the Virginia shore, for example, if the strip of land between Dranesville District Park and Great Falls were purchased, all of the land from the American Legion Bridge to Mather Gorge would be in the public domain. This would be a wonderful complement to the C&O Canal National Historic Park across the river.

At the same time, we need stronger laws to protect what we've already set aside for future generations. More certainly needs to be done to control the continuing pollution of the Potomac from agriculture upstream. The Potomac was one of 20 rivers throughout the United States to be classified as an endangered river last year. This month, June, is a golden opportunity for recreation on the river. Yet swimming, boating and fishing within the proximity of Washington remain problematic and unsatisfactory because of poor water quality.

To their credit, the homeowners along the river have not clear cut the banks or the steep slopes between their houses and the water. Therefore, tiers of oak, pine, sycamore and yellow poplar still provide a screen between the denser development to the south and the Virginia shores of the Potomac. Without this shady screen, the beauty of this wilderness in Washington surely would be lost.

-- William E. Welsh