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Gorge Commission takes on fourth priority

The Gorge Commission last month created a list of three top issues to consider as it prepares for its maiden attempt at a collaborative problem-solving process.

The issues were big: addressing pressing recreation issues; progressing with a complex data collection process called Vital Signs Indicators; and creating a new policy for addressing urban area expansion requests.

Staff was directed to recommend the next step, and this month advised taking on all three topics — plus a fourth, smaller one. The commission agreed with the ambitious proposal at its May 14 meeting in Troutdale.

“We’re recommending that you don’t leave out any of these priorities. The reality is we have to do all of them,” said Commission Planner Jennifer Kaden.

They might not all move at the same rate or pace, she said, but all need to be addressed. The larger ones might take a year, she said.

Commissioner Jim Middaugh was concerned the commission was taking on too much. “I just don’t think we can do it all,” he said. “I am concerned that we will create expectations that we’re not going to be able to meet.”

Staff’s recommended first topic to take on is one that actually wasn’t on the list, but it fits the bill for what professional collaborators recommended as a first stab at collaboration.

It is a narrow topic, and relatively simple compared to the other ones.

That narrow topic is providing rules for how surveyors should finish the long-awaited project of finally drawing accurate boundaries around the 13 urban areas in the national scenic area.

When the scenic area was created, the congressional maps made in 1987 were done in ink pen drawn on small-scale maps. The resultant lines on the ground were anywhere from 50 feet to 200 feet wide in places.

Surveyors were hired last year to take on the issue, and in most cases, the outer boundaries in those thick areas were logical to create – such as following a road or a ridge line.

In some cases, however, no typical surveying methods existed for making that decision. The surveyors asked for further direction. Gathering a group of people to work together on creating logical criteria for addressing several categories of ambiguous boundary issues was seen as a good first effort at collaboration.

Neutral professionals will be hired to lead that collaboration effort, and staff hopes the work will be done by the end of the year.

The gorge commission last year hired two universities to advise on whether a collaborative decision-making process would work on scenic area issues. They interviewed 83 people with an interest in the scenic area, and found people were willing to try it.

As for the three bigger issues, staff recommended immediately pursuing work on the Vital Signs Indicators project, because it is drawing the most interest from potential partners.

The US Geological Survey and three universities are interested in working on the Vital Signs Indicators project, started by the commission in 2007 and producing a final report in 2009. When fully functional, the project will track numerous data to measure the health of the economy, environment and cultural resources in the gorge. That data will be used to make policy decisions.

The commission has not been able to fully pursue it due to staff cuts. The goal is to develop a model so all the data points collected by various agencies are in the right format to be usable.

Commissioner Don Bonker, a former congressman, cautioned the commission about allowing partner agencies to become financial contributors. “They’re going to have a say, they’re going to have influence … they’ll want to remake it in their own image.”

On the urban boundary expansion, Commission Executive Director Darren Nichols said the current rules for allowing expansions are 20 years old and seem outdated.

By June or July, university collaboration centers will provide a description of the work to be done, and its cost.

This work scope “would identify how to frame the issue, how to design a collaborative process and who to include,” a staff report stated.

Commissioner Keith Chamberlain was concerned that some of the collaboration work might take place behind closed doors, but Nichols said that is the nature of planning work.

The desire is to have the process as public as possible, but some private meetings are needed just to encourage candor, Nichols said.

Lynn Burditt, the manager of the U.S. Forest Service National Scenic Area office, said it wasn’t like the collaboration professionals would go off and meet with interested parties and then bring back a proposal and expect the commission “to bless” it.

Commissioner Carl McNew said he’d seen the commission come up with policies before that met resistance from other parties “and went nowhere.” He encouraged having interested parties work together instead to create an acceptable policy to everyone.

As for the recreation issue — which will also have a more defined collaboration work-scope presented to the commission this summer — the commission has heard about a boom in recreation that is pressuring those resources in the gorge.

Nichols said the commission “was 20 years behind” in dealing with recreation impacts “that are only growing in intensity and complexity.”

There is often not enough parking due to high use, and some recreation spots are in inappropriate locations that damage resources. A multi-government effort is already working on a recreation strategy. This plan would broaden it beyond public entities, Kaden said.

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