New Gorge commission leader will hit ground running

Stint in D.C. allowed him to gain knowledge, make connections

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

Published:

 
photoDarren Nichols

Darren Nichols hasn’t found much down time recently.

Before leaving his most recent job with the state of Oregon in December, Nichols was already in Washington, D.C., serving on the White House Council on Environmental Quality. That commitment continues until Feb. 24.

Three days later, it’s back to the Northwest for Nichols’ next venture. He starts as full-time executive director of the Columbia River Gorge Commission on Feb. 27.

A vacation between jobs? Not quite.

“There really wasn’t much of a transition,” Nichols said.

Nichols, 40, takes over the Gorge commission post from Jill Arens, who stepped away last month after more than five years at the helm. He comes most recently from Oregon’s Department of Land Conservation and Development, where he worked extensively with planning and management issues. Nichols said he hopes to translate those skills to help the commission, which oversees land-use decisions and policy in the six Gorge counties.

Nichols won’t be starting from scratch when he joins the commission full-time at the end of this month. He’s been working with staff and appointed commissioners part-time since January, gathering a better sense of their interests and priorities. Nichols has also taken advantage of his time in Washington, D.C., rubbing elbows and making connections with federal officials and both states’ congressional leaders before heading back, he said.

“Fortunately, the commission was flexible,” Nichols said. “It’s worked out well on a number of fronts.”

Nichols’ arrival comes at an uncertain time for the commission, an organization hobbled by budget cuts in recent years. The commission is funded equally by Washington and Oregon, but has seen its resources dwindle as both states’ legislatures wrestle with financial difficulties of their own. Since 2004, the commission has seen its staff drop from 10.5 positions to less than half that now, said Commissioner Harold Abbe, who lives in Camas.

Abbe will step away from his position in June, after completing his second four-year term with the group. He said Arens left big shoes to fill -- particularly in working with the region’s American Indian tribes -- but he likes what he’s seen in Nichols’ experience and energy.

“I think that we’re in good shape,” Abbe said.

Nichols isn’t the only new face to join the organization in the past year. One of the group’s newest commissioners is Vancouver resident Damon Webster, appointed to the post last summer. He said the turnover has required some members to spend more time learning the issues, but that process has been eased by a long-tenured staff still handling day-to-day operations from the commission’s White Salmon headquarters.

Webster called Nichols a great replacement of a “really strong” leader in Arens. When she announced her departure last fall, Arens indicated the commission could benefit from fresh ideas and energy a new director would bring. So far, the transition has been encouraging, Webster said.

“I feel like everybody has tended to meld really well,” he said.

Nichols plans to move to White Salmon once he takes the reins of the commission full time later this month. He hopes to help the group further establish its connecting role with the wide-ranging communities and interests in the Gorge. The commission, founded in 1987, has grown out of its establishment phase and is ready for the next step, he said.

“I am very optimistic about the future of the Gorge commission,” Nichols said. “We’re looking ahead for the next 25 years to be really good years.”

Eric Florip: 360-735-4541; http://twitter.com/col_enviro;eric.florip@columbian.com.