Gorge commission preps funding pitch

PSU-UW analysis says budget, staffing inadequate for agency's mission

By Eric Florip, Columbian Transportation & Environment Reporter

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The Columbia River Gorge Commission is no stranger to tight budgets. The bistate agency has for years operated with limited cash and a bare-bones staff now equal to just six full-time employees.

As the commission prepares its two-year funding pitch to Washington and Oregon leaders, the agency is hoping 2015 is the year things finally turn around.

To bolster its case, the commission asked for a first-ever analysis of exactly what it would take to carry out the duties spelled out in the 1986 Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act. The study’s preliminary findings show that the commission’s current budget and staff don’t even come close.

The analysis, done by the University of Washington and Portland State University, found that the commission would need close to 25 full-time staff and an annual budget of about $3.6 million. The commission now operates on about $873,000 per year.

“That’s a big difference,” said Darren Nichols, the commission’s executive director. “It’s not surprising for those of us that are living this every day.”

The primary purposes of the National Scenic Area Act are protecting the Gorge’s natural assets and supporting the regional economy. The commission is charged with overseeing land-use decisions and policy in the six Gorge counties, among other duties.

The commission is funded in equal amounts by Washington and Oregon. If the two states’ legislatures authorize different amounts, then the number is determined by whichever is lower. For the 2013-15 biennium, that was Washington.

The Gorge commission is now preparing a budget request it will deliver to both states later this year, ahead of the 2015 legislative sessions in Olympia and Salem. Nichols said the request will be based on the UW-PSU study, which was an investment in itself. The commission paid about $46,000 for the study, Nichols said.

“We’re hoping that the states will take a fresh look at the analysis, and we’re hoping that Oregon and Washington will be compelled to reinvest in the long-term protection and enhancement of the National Scenic Area,” Nichols said, adding: “This level of investment from Oregon and Washington would be a game-changer.”

Nichols and others recognize that’s far from a sure thing. Both states have seen budget struggles of their own in recent years. And the Gorge commission will have plenty of competition when it comes time to make its case.

“We’re not going to be the only voice out there,” said Damon Webster, Clark County’s appointed representative on the commission. “A lot of people are going to be asking for funding.”

Webster noted that a sizable increase for the commission would still amount to a relatively small piece of the two states’ multibillion-dollar budgets. But the extra resources could go a long way, he said.

Reduced budgets and staff have forced the commission to slow or put off many of its key functions, Webster said. Development permits reviewed by the panel take longer. Parts of the commission’s management plan are long overdue for an update.

Officials acknowledge the Gorge commission could do a better job of emphasizing the economic side of its mission — a message that resonates with decision makers, even if other aspects of the agency don’t as much, Nichols said. Recreation in the Gorge now pumps a huge amount of money into the region each year, he said.

“That gets people’s attention,” Nichols said. “We’re no longer talking about a handful of windsurfers.”

Perhaps the best case to be made for the Gorge commission is the Gorge itself, Webster said.

“I think the Gorge is a national treasure. It really is,” Webster said. “It’s such an awesome place, and I think sometimes we take it for granted.”

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