Gorge commission preps funding pitch

Hobbled by budget cuts, it is seeking more money

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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It takes an optimist to do Darren Nichols' job. Fortunately, the executive director of the Columbia River Gorge Commission more than fits that description.

"I have to be an optimist," Nichols said. "Things are looking better every day."

As the commission prepares to make its two-year funding pitch to state lawmakers in both Washington and Oregon, agency leaders are hoping for an increase in an era of perennially tight budgets. They're hoping to re-energize an effort to collect detailed data on the area and its health. They're looking to strengthen connections with communities and players within the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.

"The bottom line is, we need a significant increase in the investment of the two states to really harness the potential of this region," Nichols said.

The Gorge commission, hobbled by budget cuts in recent years, now operates on an annual budget of slightly more than $800,000, with just five full-time employees. One of its biggest priorities, the Vital Signs Indicators project, has largely stalled, with only squeezed resources to devote to it. Cuts have also stretched an agency whose charge is to coordinate policy and land-use planning among four Columbia Basin tribes, six counties and the communities within them. A big part of that is maintaining regular contact and relationships with those parties, Nichols said.

The commission's current financial situation simply hasn't allowed that, he said.

"It's not even close," Nichols said. "We can't even keep up with day-to-day obligations."

The commission, which is funded equally by the Washington and Oregon legislatures, has asked for a budget that would bring its biennium total to $2.6 million, Nichols said, or about $1.3 million per year. That would bring the agency closer to its pre-recession levels, allow it to restore some core functions and look ahead to the future, he said.

Of course, that's far from a sure thing. During a committee meeting in Portland last month, commission leaders discussed whether the agency should continue to focus its efforts on the Vital Signs project, or turn more attention to its push for more funding. The group recommended the latter course of action. The full commission holds its next meeting Tuesday in Hood River, Ore.

Slow progress

The Vital Signs project — which aims to collect detailed data on natural resources, scenic qualities, recreation, economic development and other issues in the Gorge — hasn't made the progress leaders would like in recent years. Particularly on economic measurements, commission staff have largely deferred or made only limited headway. Clark and Skamania county economic development officers at the August meeting said that's an area that should be prioritized.

That doesn't mean the commission won't have anything to show for its efforts when it goes to state lawmakers, Nichols said. Despite "no budget" for the project, the Vital Signs process has made some progress, he said. The agency has shown it's willing and able to make the most of its resources, he said. And for the first time, the commission recently completed detailed legal descriptions of the Gorge's urban area boundaries -- an accomplishment that shouldn't be understated, Nichols added.

"There aren't very many of us," Nichols said, "but we have an incredibly talented, dedicated staff team."

To advocate for its future, the commission must reach two state legislatures that aren't always plugged into the Gorge and its issues, said Jim Middaugh, a commissioner from Multnomah County. Both staff and commissioners themselves will play a role in making their case and bridging that gap, he said.

"One of our biggest challenges within the Gorge community is that a lot of the political action happens in the Puget Sound and in the Willamette Valley," Middaugh said.

Both Middaugh and Nichols characterized the funding the commission has requested — close to $1 million extra over two years — as a modest amount in the scope of overall state budgets. Increased revenue from maximizing the Gorge's recreation potential, for one, could make the investment more than worthwhile, Nichols said.

That will ultimately be up to lawmakers to decide, when the Washington and Oregon legislatures convene in 2013. The commission will spend the coming months preparing and making its case.

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