Gorge commission faces a daunting transition

New leaders, loss of director, budget cuts among challenges

By Kathie Durbin, Columbian staff writer

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STEVENSON — The Columbia River Gorge Commission is facing an anxious transition.

On Tuesday, the bistate panel elected a new chairman, Carl McNew of White Salmon, and a new vice chairman, Keith Chamberlain of Carson. It’s the first time in recent memory — maybe ever — that Washington residents of the Gorge have been named to both leadership posts.

McNew succeeds Commission Chair Joyce Reinig of Hood River, Ore., the only member who has served on the panel since it was formed in the late 1980s.

McNew, who joined the commission in 2007, and Chamberlain, who was appointed earlier this year, confront daunting challenges.

Executive Director Jill Arens will leave her post at the end of January. A search for her replacement is under way.

Former National Scenic Area Manager Dan Harkenrider, the nonvoting Forest Service representative on the panel, retired a few weeks ago, and interim Forest Service representative Daina Bambe said it’s not clear when another scenic area manager will be appointed. “We are still operating under a continuing resolution,” she said. “Congress hasn’t passed our budget.”

The Forest Service is expecting deep cuts in its roads and trails budget next year and even deeper cuts in 2013, she said. The agency manages recreation in the Gorge, handles land purchases and enforces restrictions on development in the most sensitive areas.

The Gorge commission has had its budget cut repeatedly over the past two years. Arens learned last week that the commission will see its budget cut by another 5 percent soon as Washington lawmakers convene in late November to slash another $2 billion from state spending. Because any cut made by Washington must be matched by Oregon, that amounts to a $70,000 reduction, she said — the equivalent of one employee’s salary and benefits. The commission staff already has been pared to the equivalent of less than five full-time employees, and its shortage of planners has forced lengthy delays in dealing with land use enforcement issues.

“The only thing we have is people,” Arens said in an interview. “We have no assets.”

‘Very critical period’

Budget miscalculations, and an outright error made by the 2011 Washington Legislature that will zero out the commission’s budget in the 2012-13 budget year if not corrected, add to the anxiety.

“To me, this seems to be a very critical period,” said Commissioner Don Bonker, a former congressman from Southwest Washington. He stressed that the new leaders must be prepared to commit significant time to the job.

“The budget has taken up all our time,” Reinig agreed. “It’s got to be a priority to get this situation changed. We’ve had to battle to keep every dollar we have.”

One problem, she said, is that “people don’t know who we are, what we’re about.”

Both McNew and Chamberlain said they were committed to putting in the time it will take.

Commissioner Antone Minthorne, a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla, said it will be important to pay attention to Native American issues as tribes become more involved in the Gorge. ‘“Our presence will continue to be felt,” he said.

Outgoing Commission Vice Chairman Harold Abbe of Camas, who has lobbied on behalf of the Gorge commission in Olympia, offered a pessimistic assessment of the situation. In order for the commission to avoid further attrition of its diminished staff, he said, it will have to save money wherever it can. Already it has cut back its meeting schedule and reduced its office hours to four days a week.

“The problems that are going to face the new director are almost insurmountable,” he said. And the Washington legislators he’s talked to “aren’t holding out any hope.”