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By Lorrie DeKay
Columbia River Gorge Commission 

Klcikitat County support is great but from elsewhere questionable

 


Once again, the Columbia River Gorge Commission is fighting for funding to do its job. After 30 years of protecting the largest and most beautiful National Scenic Area in the United States, it is no closer to having the resources required to accomplish the mission established by passage of the National Scenic Area Act of 1986. A bi-state compact signed by Oregon and Washington promised to fund the Commission equally to fully carry out the mission. Every two years, a modest budget that supports the work of six staff is submitted to the Oregon and Washington legislatures, with justification for every dollar requested. However, during each budget cycle, the two states differ in the amount they believe is needed. The state appropriating the lowest funding requires the other state to lower its appropriation to match. This is a race to the bottom and is hurting Washington residents. Lack of resources severely impacts the capacity of the Commission to process permits in a timely way, which can create frustrating delays for landowners to permit their proposed projects.

During this last year, a new executive director and staff worked hard to do more with less. With a commitment to streamlining permit processes, improving customer service, meeting benchmarks, seeking cooperation with partners, and embarking on an overdue management plan review process, the new Gorge Commission staff are making huge strides to make the Commission more effective. Despite a few years of rocky relationships in the past, cooperation with Klickitat County is at an all-time high. In 2015, state funds were appropriated to Klickitat County to hire a dedicated planner to reduce a backlog of permit reviews at the Commission This new planner added much needed capacity and quickly made an impact with Klickitat County residents seeking scenic area permits. Klickitat County realizes the benefit of having a dedicated planner for Klickitat residents, and the cooperative agreement between the county and the Gorge Commission is intact. The number of new permit applications in the first quarter of this year has already exceeded those received in any one full year in the past. Both Klickitat County and the Commission are urging the Washington legislature to renew the funds to enable Klickitat County residents to have their permit application reviewed in a timely manner. County Commissioner David Sauter and Planning Director Mo-chi Lindblad have been essential to the success of this partnership.

Both Oregon and Washington Legislatures are busy with budget negotiations. Both governors recognized the importance of the Gorge Commission’s work, and even in these difficult times, recommended funding at slightly higher levels to enable the Commission to better serve the communities within the National Scenic Area. The Washington House Appropriations Committee also recognized the importance and passed a budget equal to Oregon’s. However, the Senate Ways and Means cut the Commission’s budget by $500,000 to $462,000 for two years. This means Oregon will also need to reduce its $1.1 million recommended budget down to $462,000 for two years. The Commission would be crippled and could not operate with only $984,000 in funding from two states for the next two years.

What does this mean for the Gorge Commission? The current six staff would be reduced to three. At a time when we are embarking on much needed management plan review, a cut like this will put a halt to just about everything our residents, businesses and growers need. Thirty years ago, when the National Scenic Act came to be, the Gorge was a different place than it is today. We have a small but extremely capable staff and a commission that is functioning well. It is vitally important that we be able to continue our mission of protecting the scenic, natural, cultural and recreational resources while protecting and encouraging appropriate economic growth.

Even with staff reductions, the National Scenic Area Act remains as federal law and requires actions to protect the resources of the National Scenic Area. If the Commission budget is reduced by 50 percent, we would not be able to:

• review the applications and staff memos from the 5 counties within the required 20-day review timeframe. This time frame would need to be suspended, seriously impacting the residents of the Gorge and their plans, whether it is to build a home or barn, or plant crops on their lands.

• review the forest practices applications from both states within the timeframe allowed by DNR and ODF which is required in the NSA

• conduct all the development reviews from Klickitat County and issue permits. This would again impact the residents with delayed timelines. The review of development applications is time-consuming and complicated given the rules in the management plan to protect the resources, and must be followed.

• conduct all the post-permit compliance inspections in Klickitat County. These are already backlogged due to prioritizing the active development applications. continue the Gorge 2020 Management Plan Review and Update Process, in violation of the NSA Act. The review and update of the management plan is required every 10 years, yet parts of the plan are 30 years old and were not revised in 2004. There is significant new information that must be considered. Public agencies working in the National Scenic Area are requesting adjustments to accommodate their/public needs in order to protect public safety and protect the resources.

• complete the urban area boundary definitions project since there would be no funding to pay the surveyors. No UAB adjustments would be considered.

• address appeals to the Commission and defend it from lawsuits.

• attend meetings with partners on transportation and Economic Development issues. The Gorge Commission has been criticized in the past for not doing more to promote Economic Development in the Gorge. These collaborations are critical.

• fully engage with the four treaty tribes as required by the NSA. Working with the four treaty tribes is necessary and important, especially listening to the tribes’ concerns about fossil fuel transportation through the Gorge especially after the Mosier UPRR derailment. All work related to fossil fuel transport, including the appeal hearing to the Gorge Commission would be delayed for an undetermined amount of time.

• address, in partnership with the US Forest Service and other agencies, the rapidly growing congestion issues due to an exponential increase in recreational use in the National Scenic Area. More than $2.5 million visitors use the Gorge and the Commission staff are a vital part of the recreation planning and public safety planning with all the agencies. With a reduction in staff, the planning to address issues resulting from the rapidly growing tourism economy will be seriously delayed and other agencies will bear more of the burden.

The 13 Columbia River Gorge Commissioners put in countless hours of their own time in support of the NSA. Our budget request is modest, especially considering the responsibilities of the agency. We have set goals, met benchmarks, and are doing all we can, with the resources given, to improve what we do and how we do it. We need everyone’s support to ensure funding to our unique bi-state agency so that the National Scenic Area is the same 30 years from now as it was when it was created 30 years ago—a model for collaboration of communities who use the Gorge to live, work and play.

 

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