Jill Arens stepping down as executive director of Gorge Commission

Oregon native’s 5-year tenure marked by budget cuts

By Kathie Durbin, Columbian staff writer

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photoJill Arens

Jill Arens, the executive director of the Columbia River Gorge Commission, announced Tuesday that she will leave her job at the end of January.

“This position has been exciting and challenging, and uncommonly satisfying,” she said in an email after informing Gorge commissioners, her staff and the governors’ offices in Olympia and Salem of her decision.

Arens was hired in August 2006 to succeed Martha Bennett as the bistate commission’s fifth director. A fourth-generation resident of Oregon’s Hood River Valley, she brought 25 years of experience in business management with private and nonprofit agencies to the position, most recently at the University of Minnesota.

Her tenure has been marked by efforts to shore up the commission’s funding, which comes in equal amounts from the Washington and Oregon legislatures. The agency has had to cut staff repeatedly over the past two years, to a record low of fewer than five full-time equivalent employees. Its White Salmon offices are now closed on Fridays, and Gorge Commission meetings have been curtailed to save travel expenses. In the wake of the Washington Legislature’s vote this year to eliminate its budget altogether in 2012, due in part to an apparent budget snafu, the commission faces an uncertain future.

Arens told commissioners at a recent meeting that she had no money to hire a principal planner, a position she said is key to charting the future of the National Scenic Area and amending the management plan to address new issues facing Gorge communities.

The commission’s top priority is the Vital Signs Project, an effort to give the commission better data on how effective the Scenic Area Act has been in protecting the Gorge and encouraging economic development in Gorge communities. That program has been crippled by a staff cut, as well.

Commissioner Harold Abbe, a retired union official who lives in Camas, said Arens has been ”a great asset” to the 13-member commission, which sets policy and oversees land-use decisions in the six Gorge counties.

“She has been very good at reaching out to the community and getting a lot of people involved,” Abbe said. “She’s good at working with the counties and with the economic and financial aspects of the commission. We’re going to be sorry to lose her.”

Arens also has worked to strengthen relationships with the four Columbia Basin treaty tribes, which have special status as sovereign nations under the 1986 Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act. She has traveled to all four reservations to make formal presentations to tribal councils and has worked to mediate conflicts between windsurfers and tribal fishermen at designated traditional fishing sites on the Columbia River.

Arens did not mention the commission’s budget struggles in her brief statement, saying only in a follow-up email, “I believe a new executive director provides a great opportunity for fresh ideas and energy for the Gorge Commission.”

But Abbe said, “I’m sure the pressures of making the budget from year to year have put a big burden on her. I’m sure it’s been very trying. I wasn’t at all surprised when she told me she was resigning in January.”

Laying off longtime workers or cutting their hours has been particularly stressful, he said.

“In a small agency, you become like family. You work with these people every day,” he added.

He acknowledged that the current budget situation might make it hard to recruit a qualified candidate to replace Arens.

“I’m sure people will look at the position budget-wise,” he said. “By the time we do the search, we’ll know the results of the (Washington Legislature’s) special session” in December.

He admitted he is not optimistic, given the latest projection that Washington faces a new $1.3 billion budget deficit just five months after the Legislature passed what it believed to be a balanced budget for the next two years.

“It’s very hard for the legislatures to champion your budget with all the cuts that are going on,” he said.

Kathie Durbin: 360-735-4523; Twitter: col_politics; kathie.durbin@columbian.com.