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Commission considers priorities

The Gorge Commission is picking a topic to tackle with its new collaboration skills, and offered three top prospects Tuesday: urban boundaries, recreation overuse pressures, and reviving its “vital signs” monitoring program.

The commission picked the top three at its meeting Tuesday, April 9, at the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center in The Dalles. That list will be narrowed to one later, after staff comes back with options for each category.

Once it has its final topic, the commission will seek to work on it with other interested parties in the next year or two.

The topics were picked because they were each mentioned by several commissioners.

Commissioner Sondra Clark of Klickitat County said work on legal descriptions of the 13 urban area boundaries in the national scenic area was unfinished and should be completed.

Commissioners Rodger Nichols and Dan Ericksen, both of The Dalles, noted The Dalles, the largest city in the scenic area, is poised to seek expansion of its urban area boundary next year.

“I think it will behoove us to have a system in place [for handling such requests] so that when it comes, we’ll be prepared,” Nichols said.

Ericksen suggested taking “a slice” of the large urban boundary issue and tackling it. He suggested interested parties could bring in their research to share.

The Dalles has worked for years on the process to seek expansion of its urban boundaries. It needs approval both from the state and gorge commission. It’s been told by the gorge commission that the commission is not prepared to process such a request right now due to low staffing.

Commissioners also heard reports from staff that recreation in the gorge is growing at such a rate that potentially irreparable harm is being done to cultural and natural resources.

Staff said they’ve heard reports of cars parked where they shouldn’t be at recreation spots, but there are no “boots on the ground” to monitor that use.

Commissioner Keith Chamberlain, of Skamania County, said, “outdoor recreation seems to be one of the largest developments of the scenic area today and the gorge commission has no idea what the cumulative effects are.”

Chamberlain said, “everybody seems to look at their projects piecemeal,” and nobody’s looking “scenic-area-wide.”

Commissioner Bowen Blair, an Oregon governor appointee from Multnomah County, said he wanted to pick a collaboration topic that was tangible and had wide interest. His top choice was resuming the work on the commission’s Vital Signs Indicators project.

It is a monitoring program that looks at a wide variety of data, all geared toward measuring whether the commission is meeting the objectives of the scenic area act: to protect and enhance scenic, cultural, natural and recreational resources, while also promoting the regional economy in manners consistent with resource protection.

Other suggestions from commissioners didn’t make the final three, but still had strong interest. Commissioner Janet Wainwright, of Skamania County, suggested improving the public perception of the gorge commission by working with the media to publish positive stories about the commission and its work.

She said the perception issue facing the gorge commission “has been at the forefront of most of the problems facing the commission,” including funding woes and trust issues.

A communication plan, she said, is “doable, it’s easy, it can be done quickly and I think it’s crucial given the funding issues that we’re facing right now.”

The commission is funded by both Washington and Oregon, and must accept an equal amount of money from both states, forcing it to always accept the lesser of two amounts offered.

The gorge is higher on the Oregon radar, since it’s close to Portland, but is not as familiar to Washington’s legislators.

Other commissioners also listed funding as their top issue, but Commissioner Don Bonker, a former congressman, said while funding was his own top issue, he said seeking it should be done discreetly, and not be seen as a top stated goal of the agency. That could be misinterpreted as self-serving, he said.

The commission has seen its funding and staffing cut almost in half over the past few years. Staff are essentially only able to process individual planning requests, and don’t have time for more proactive, region-wide, comprehensive planning.

Bonker’s own top priority was Hanford nuclear waste.

“It’s very clear it’s potentially the biggest threat to the gorge,” he said.

He wanted an expert to come talk to the commission to give it “some real information about how serious this threat is and how best to deal with it.”

The commission’s collaboration process started a year ago, when staff from two university collaboration programs interviewed over 80 people about the gorge commission and gorge issues.

They found people cautiously willing to participate in a collaboration process — in which people of varying viewpoints work together to reach agreement on an issue.

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