While the Columbia River Gorge Commission is a small and little-noticed regulatory enclave, its work is majestic.
Tasked with protecting an 83-mile-long swath of the Gorge encompassing 292,630 acres of the most pristine landscape this continent has to offer, the gorge commission plays a role in maintaining the Northwest not only for current residents but for future generations. The Gorge is one of the hallmarks of this region, serving as an attraction for local residents as well as visitors from afar.
Because of that, what has become a crucial time for the commission also is a crucial time for the preservation of the region. Created with the signing of the Columbia River Scenic Area Act in 1986, which launched a grand experiment in land-use laws and environmental protection, the gorge commission is dependent upon funding from the legislatures in both Washington and Oregon. By law, each state must fund the commission equally, which means that when one state limits funding, the other must follow suit.
Because of that, there is a biennial struggle for the money that will allow the commission to oversee the preservation of the land and to spur environmentally compatible economic development in the 13 towns and cities that line the Gorge. That legislative song-and-dance is taking place this year in both state houses. And now, Darren Nichols, executive director of the commission, has announced that he is leaving his post in April.
Some legislators in both states are impressing upon their colleagues the importance of the commission, but that can be a tough sell. As Oregon state Rep. John Huffman, R-The Dalles, explained to The Columbian, “Every session, I have to go to Salem and educate folks in the governor’s office, my legislative leadership, and my other colleagues. Every other year, I’m going in and advocating for funding for the commission — adequate funding, which we never seem to get.”
On this side of the river, state Rep. Liz Pike, R-Camas, has pushed for additional temporary funding that will allow the commission to relieve a backlog of permit requests in Klickitat County. Because that county never signed on to the federal scenic area act, even the simplest requests there — such as for a patio or a shed — can take a year to work through the system. Considering that Pike’s bill includes safeguards for taxpayers to ensure that the work gets done, lawmakers would be wise to adequately fund the commission and approve the additional spending.
While that represents some of the nuts and bolts of what the commission does, its mission is one of more grandeur. As The Columbian has written editorially, “Sometime in the future, be it 10 or 50 or 100 years from now, our descendants will travel east from Vancouver and take in the wondrous scenery of the Columbia River Gorge. And they will be thankful. Thankful that a slice of nature that helps define the Pacific Northwest has been preserved. Thankful that their ancestors saw fit to ensure that preservation. Thankful that growth and sprawl have not been allowed to sully the scenery.”
That is the primary duty of the Columbia River Gorge Commission as it attempts to balance ecological concerns with the economic concerns of communities in the area. That can be a difficult task and it is not always a welcome one — when the federal law was signed in 1986, the flag at the Skamania County courthouse was lowered to half-staff — yet it is crucial.
In fact, you might even say it is majestic.