In our view: Tough Task in the Gorge

Commission's new executive director faces a multitude of challenges



Next week, Darren Nichols will begin one of the most important jobs in the Pacific Northwest. Hyperbole? Perhaps, if you’re impressed only by headlines about politicians, entertainers and athletes. But Nichols’ new job though less glamorous than some highly publicized occupations will be supervising the management of the greatest natural treasure that is shared by Washington and Oregon: the Columbia River Gorge.As the new executive director of the bistate Columbia River Gorge Commission, Nichols will take on a task that requires all the multitask precision of juggling eggs. The commission for a quarter of a century has been charged by Congress with overseeing the preservation of the Gorge’s natural beauty while balancing the crucial and sometimes conflicting interests of environmental protection with economic development. Simply stated, Nichols and the 13 commissioners must keep the Gorge gloriously scenic while allowing its residents to enjoy a reasonably beneficial business climate.

If only it were that simple.

We think Nichols has both the savvy and the spurs that the job requires. Previously he worked for the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development, focusing on planning and management issues. Most recently, he’s been in Washington, D.C. serving on the White House Council on Environmental Quality. Those are his qualifications on the environmental side. But Nichols also knows the business side, having worked 10 years as a construction contractor and earning a master’s degree in planning. He’s also working on a law degree at Lewis & Clark Law School.

Nichols will need all of that expertise and more as he accepts the pressure of protecting the 292,630-acre Columbia River Gorge Scenic Area, stretching from Washougal to Wishram in Washington and from Troutdale to the Deschutes River in Oregon.

The satchel of pressing demands that Nichols will grasp on Monday is heavily laden. Here are just two of the many tough tasks:

Funding of the commission has become a political football. Federal law requires equal financial support from both Washington and Oregon. That sounds great in a vibrant economy, being able to draw financial resources from two directions, three counting modest support from the feds. But the dual wells require digging deeper during an economic recession. The bistate balance stipulation means that, when one legislature cuts funding to the Gorge Commission, the other state must follow suit.

As a result, the White Salmon-based Gorge Commission in recent years has seen its staff drop from more than 10 positions to fewer than half that total.

Vigilance must continue against efforts to build a casino in the Gorge. Earlier this month, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs in central Oregon opened the Indian Head Casino at Warm Springs on Highway 26 between Portland and Bend. Previously, the tribe had been pushing plans for a casino in the Gorge, at Cascade Locks. The Bend Bulletin reported that the election of Gorge-casino-foe Gov. John Kitzhaber put those plans on hold, but Deepak Sehga, chairman of the casino board, said the tribe’s “number one goal is still to move to the Gorge. That goal does not go away, because we’ve been stymied by the government agencies in the last 10 years.”

Well, one man’s “stymied” is another man’s “proper protection of the Gorge.” Under Nichols’ leadership, the commission must remember that the Gorge is no place for a casino.