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Saturday, February 24, 2024
Feb. 24, 2024

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In Our View: Moratorium highlights Skamania economic issues

The Columbian

The political battle over a proposed adventure park in Skamania County is emblematic of economic changes in the area. But at its root is the desire for residents to define their community.

According to the Camas-Washougal Post-Record, Skamania County commissioners have enacted a moratorium on the development of recreational facilities. In response to concerns about the proposed park in the county’s West End, some residents asked officials to review and modify the definitions of “recreational facilities” and “recreational activities” in the county’s zoning code.

According to reports, a developer hopes to construct an adventure park featuring a “mountain coaster,” zip-line course and event venue on 150 acres along Canyon Creek Road. In a notice to local residents, a consulting firm wrote: “Placement of activities and structures will be integrated with the existing forest to provide a nature-focused experience. … (The park will) be ever-mindful of respecting the surrounding area.”

Residents are skeptical, and opposition expressed on social media has been fierce. There are concerns about increased traffic and diminished quality of life in the area.

The moratorium on new recreational facilities allows time for elected officials, residents and developers to further consider all angles of the issue. It also highlights long-standing economic issues in the county of approximately 12,000 residents.

As a 2022 profile of Skamania County from the state Employment Security Department details: “Thirty years ago, Skamania County’s economy went through a wrenching transition. Long dependent upon timber for jobs and income, the county lost both when logging was curtailed on national forests.” Unemployment was 22 percent in February 1992.

But Skamania Lodge soon opened (it remains the county’s largest employer) and the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area became a destination for windsurfers. The profile adds: “Almost overnight, Skamania had shifted from a timber economy to a tourist economy.”

Since then, it also has shifted to a commuter economy. Unemployment was 3.5 percent at the end of 2022, but that is deceptive. State data show that “74 percent of the county’s earned income came from jobs outside of the county, easily the highest in the state.” In other words, Skamania County has become a bedroom community to the Portland metro area.

The Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area Act limits development, and whether Skamania County would benefit from local industries and retail outlets is up to residents. There are strong arguments on both sides of the issue.

One of the pluses is that locally based businesses contribute to the tax base, allowing for the providing of services and additional development. Another is that local businesses are essential for keeping young adults from leaving a community. There is no surer death-knell for a community than incentivizing young people to leave as soon as they are able.

Yet the drawbacks to growth also are clear. It is understandable if residents are resistant to traffic and an influx of visitors. If the locals desired those things, they likely would move to a place where they are common.

The opening of a small recreational facility would not single-handedly alter the economy or the quality of life in Skamania County. But it creates a platform for considering questions about the future of the region. Skamania County has fewer residents than the city of Washougal, but the residents who are there should be allowed to determine that future.