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Editorial: Gorge commission 2.0?

Columbia Gorge sunset.

Columbia Gorge sunset. Susan Buce

— Some encouraging words are coming out of the Columbia River Gorge Commission of late — words that speak to the concepts of collaboration and problem-solving, rather than top-down regulation.

These professed changes speak to the tempering quality of adversity.

The gorge commission has faced some challenging years of late: budget cuts that have gutted the agency’s staff to such an extent that it could do little other than look inward for solutions — and outward for partners.

“The gorge commission is not your father’s gorge commission anymore,” said Darrin Nichols, executive director of the commission for just over a year, during a visit with The Chronicle’s editorial board that also included a handful of commissioners.

The visit, in itself, is notable. Commissioners say it is the first time in history that the commission has reached out to the paper to directly explain its goals and motivation.

Nichols isn’t the only change at the commission. The panel itself has greeted seven new members in the past two years. Many commissioners now have much less polarizing views than their predecessors and, from what we heard, a greater desire to find common ground.

“It was a perfect opportunity to take stock and realize what our real role could be,” Nichols said.

The commission has undergone a couple of key processes of self-examination.

The first was the Vital Signs Indicators Project that was undertaken in 2011. The idea was to identify key indicators that would gauge the health of the gorge, both in terms of economics and protection, as the scenic area legislation mandates. The result, says Nichols, has drawn the notice of a variety of researchers who see it as a template for integrating and analyzing various research paths to achieve a broader perspective.

The second process was the three-month collaboration training the commissioners undertook earlier this year which, it seems pretty apparent, has helped them look at their roles as more than the predictably adversarial interactions we have seen in the past.

As a result, the commission has set its sights on advancing on three key issues they have identified and unanimously agreed to: urban growth boundaries, deterioration of overused recreational facilities, and reviving the vital signs project.

These have been issues they have declined to tackle in recent years, saying a lack of staffing has simply made them impossible.

But that message has changed since Nichols’ arrival and since the commissioners’ training. They say they are committed to pursuing these endeavors despite the fact that their planning staff, equivalent to 1.6 employees, only has time to handle the Klickitat County scenic area planning applications they are mandated to oversee. (Klickitat County has never approved the scenic area.)

Ideally, they would like to see more funding for their efforts, and we can see several arguments for increases that even the biggest skeptics might find reasonable.

First is that, even if the gorge commission was defunded into oblivion, it wouldn’t change the fact that the gorge has a federally legislated overlay of regulation that must be administered. Without the commission, all that extra work would fall on the counties.

Second, urban growth boundary expansion efforts have languished for years because the commission has declined to even consider the complex issue due to its dire financial straits. These applications are critical to economic development inside city boundaries as land supplies continue to be consumed.

Third, and this would have to be a leap of faith, we’d like to see some of the bi-state partnerships like the one being considered between Cascade Locks, Stevenson and North Bonneville and another in early discussion among the gorge ports as a means of maximizing resources.

The only way some of the conditions of such partnerships can be met is through the federal-level legislative powers of the gorge commission, Nichols said.

The commission has some distance to go to prove that it really is the gorge commission 2.0.

Nichols has been spreading the word far and wide that protection and economic growth need to work together, but talk is cheap, as the saying goes.

Action, however, comes at a cost. If the residents of the gorge want to see if the gorge commission can successfully make this transition in action, as well as words, Oregon and Washington need to put some more money on the line to make it happen.

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