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By Neita Cecil
The Dalles Chronicle 

Gorge Commission gets big boost from Gov. Kitzhaber, hopes Gov. Inslee will match

 


The Gorge Commission’s audacious budget request for the new biennium—seeking nearly double its current funding—has met with resounding success at the first of many steps in the budget process.

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber’s proposed budget includes an 89.2 percent increase over Oregon’s current funding level for the Gorge Commission. Its current biennial contribution is $891,000. Kitzhaber’s proposed budget adds another $768,000, granting nearly everything the commission sought in its new budget, including four new planning staff and money for two significant planning projects.

“I’m really pleased with Gov. Kitzhaber’s investment in the national scenic area and the Gorge community,” said Darren Nichols, executive director of the Gorge Commission.

“I think this is a significant vote of confidence in the commission’s work over the last couple of years and an investment in our work going forward.”

Yet to come is the Washington governor’s budget, which is due no later than Dec. 20. Then both budgets go through their respective legislatures before a final budget is done next year. Both states are required to contribute the same amount, meaning if one state budgets more, that money has to be left on the table to maintain parity.

Nichols said a “neutral, outside assessment” found the commission needs 25 staff to truly carry out its responsibilities under the Columbia River Gorge National scenic Area Act.

At the moment, we have five,” he said.

“I think for the first time since the commission was created we’re having an objective, legitimate discussion about what it takes to host a national scenic area,” Nichols said.

“We certainly are letting [Washington] Gov. [Jay] Inslee and his staff know about Gov. Kitzhabger’s support and encouraging them to consider matching Oregon’s commitment,” Nichols said.

Nichols met with Inslee in September and said, “the governor understands the size of the task we’ve been asked to take on; he understands the importance of it.” He also said Inslee is “trying to balance some very big competing priorities in the state of Washington.”

But he said the commission request is very small in relation to the state of Washington’s budget and in relation to other agencies’ budgets.

Both states are required to contribute the same amount, meaning if one state budgets more, that money has to be left on the table to maintain parity.

“We think this is a reasonable request.” he said. Nichols said a “neutral, outside assessment” by respected public administration experts last summer found the commission needs 25 staff to truly carry out its responsibilities under the Columbia River Gorge National scenic Area Act.

At the moment, we have five,” he said.

“I think for the first time since the commission was created we’re having an objective, legitimate discussion about what it takes to host a national scenic area,” he said.

Kitzhaber’s budget funds the top priority package from the commission.

Staffers include a principal planner, two permit review specialists and a resource specialist.

The permit review specialists would help ease a 12- to 18-month backlog of permit applications awaiting review in Klickitat County.

It is the only one of six counties to not adopt its own scenic land use rules, meaning the work falls to the Gorge Commission.

The resource specialist would increase engagement with Columbia River Treaty tribes, facilitate a regional assessment of recreation and tourism, coordination of regional initiatives and convening of regional stakeholders on emerging issues, including coal and oil transport by rail, invasive species, air quality monitoring, risk of fire in the wildland-urban interface and regional Economic Development. The planning projects include a regional recreation planning assessment, which would be a first for the commission since the Gorge management plan was finished in 1991.

The Gorge gets five to 10 million visitors a year, and officials cite a need to better plan for and manage recreation before serious damage is done to recreational areas.

The other major project is a continuation of work “to help the region work together to identify appropriate long term policies for how Gorge communities function and grow, and how they coordinate with one another throughout the region,” Nichols said.

That includes forming policy for how to evaluate applications to expand the urban area boundaries around the gorge’s 13 communities.

, he said.

The other thing that has given us confidence to make this kind of request is the support we’ve received from local legislators and from both governor’s offices,

 

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