On Nov. 17, 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed into law the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act and the Gorge became one of the most significant national scenic areas in the United States. The Scenic Area Act embodies two fundamental purposes — to protect and enhance natural resources, and to support and enhance the regional economy.
Few will argue that the Gorge is a unique and beautiful place, but over the past few decades, there have been differing opinions about how to protect that beauty while at the same time protecting the livelihoods and valuable property rights of the people who live within its boundaries. Over the years, the Columbia River Gorge Commission has been reviled by some in the communities who were impacted by its actions. Unfortunately, those memories still live in the hearts and minds of many Gorge residents and some legislators who control the Gorge Commission budget. As a Clark County appointee for the past two years, I can enthusiastically testify, “This is not your father’s Gorge Commission!”
What some citizens and legislators do not realize is how different the Gorge Commission is from their impressions of the past. Over the past two years, there has been a dramatic change in the makeup of the commission: A new executive director and several new commissioners have joined the agency. As a result, there is fresh energy and a strong commitment to work collaboratively to solve problems in the region. Gone are the “Me vs. Them” days of old.
One solution that is indicative of the innovative thinking of this new Gorge Commission is the recent agreement between the cities of North Bonneville, Stevenson and Cascade Locks. Each of these communities has been hit hard by the economy and has been looking for new ways to solve problems and help each community’s economy. The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area interstate compact between Oregon and Washington provides these and other Gorge communities a unique governance opportunity and structure with legal authority to work together to address some of their challenges. The interstate compact allows these communities to share public services such as police, fire, schools and wastewater treatment in ways that otherwise would not be allowed across state lines. These communities have enlisted the Gorge Commission to help craft agreements that potentially can provide substantial savings to each city and to the states of Washington and Oregon. Together, such savings have the potential of reaching tens of millions of dollars.
Budget has taken hits
The commission is funded equally by the states of Oregon and Washington and is comprised of 12 volunteer commissioners appointed by the counties and states, as well as one non-voting representative of the U.S. department of Agriculture. Currently the commission has only five full-time and one part-time staff member — a far cry from what is needed to administer this important agency. The Commission’s budget has been slashed repeatedly over the past few years and the current staffing level is barely able to keep up with the regular business of development reviews and other functions expected from an agency that is overseeing almost 300,000 acres.
Governor Jay Inslee recognizes the value of the work of the Gorge commission and has proposed a $150,000 per-year increase in his budget. Unfortunately, the proposed Washington state Senate budget proposes a $100,000 decrease in the current Gorge Commission budget. Such a decrease — which must be matched by Oregon as required by law — will decimate the agency and require devastating cuts to staff and services. Such a cut would eliminate any hope of assisting local communities with innovative solutions to difficult economic stresses. Such a cut will also negatively impact citizens, as wait times to process applications will increase exponentially. It’s a classic case of being penny-wise and pound-foolish.
Please join me in urging the Washington state Senate and other legislators to fully fund the Gorge Commission at a level that will not only ensure natural resource protection, but also spur economic growth for the region. We owe it to our children and grand-children to steward this iconic place with care and integrity for future generations.
Damon Webster, who was born in the Columbia River Gorge at White Salmon, is a civil engineer who has lived in Vancouver for 40 years.