County hears update on ‘Gorge 2020’ plans

Wildflowers color a cliff above the Columbia River this spring. The Columbia River Gorge Commission is working on updates to the National Scenic Area Management Plan and is focusing on ways to protect the Gorge as well as promote economic development. The agency is hoping to have a draft of the “Gorge 2020” plan ready to go by summer 2019.

It’s running a tad late, but representatives of the Columbia River Gorge Commission (CRGC) are optimistic the “Gorge 2020 Management Plan Review & Update Process” will be in draft form by the summer of 2019.

On Aug. 16, Krystyna Wolniakowski, executive director of the CRGC, came to The Dalles to meet with the Wasco County Board of Commissioners and deliver a progress report on the 2020 management plan. Wolniakowski noted the increasing popularity of the National Scenic Area, and its recreational resources in particular.

“There is growing recreational intensity,” she told the county commissioners. “We need to figure out what’s realistic, and how do we manage congestion. Parts of the National Scenic Area plan are 30 years old.”

The Gorge 2020 management review process is part of an ongoing discussion to identify priorities for updates to the National Scenic Area Management Plan, which is supposed to occur every decade but has fallen far behind that schedule.

“The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Management Plan, last updated in 2004, must be reviewed every 10 years,” explained Jessica Gist, natural resources and land use planner, in a CRGC memorandum from July.

“The Columbia River Gorge Commission is responsible for determining, based on that review, the elements of the plan that need to be revised.”

The process hit high gear between January and early March, with public input sessions to identify important issues. In April, staff provided members of the CRGC with an overview of public comments over the three-month period, along with feedback from meetings with agencies, tribes, and various organizations. Staff also presented the commissioners with a summary of issues identified, but not pursued, during the plan review process in 2004.

Wolniakowski said members of the CRGC staff are focused on ways to protect the Gorge and also to support further economic development, and the 2020 plan is essential to that objective.

“People need certainty, and having clarity of purpose is critical,” she said. “This will be our road map for the next 10 years.”

She acknowledged revising the management plan has been a long process, but believes the end is almost in sight.

“We are hoping that by June or July of 2019, we will have a draft plan,” Wolniakowski said.

In her July 11 memorandum, Gist explained that topics under discussion for possible changes include how the CRGC might meet its goals to balance recreational use with protection of other resources; how land should be handled for uses that are not adequately addressed in the management plan — particularly residential and agricultural, solar, cideries and distilleries, and geotechnical exploration; and how to include strategic references regarding climate change impacts, with the suggestion that the focus of climate change should be on policies to promote adaptation and resiliency, such as “Firewise” principles and noxious weed management.

Wolniakowski started the Aug. 16 meeting by sharing some good news that should help the CRGC meet the 2019 timeline: the agency will be getting enough funding from Oregon and Washington in the upcoming biennium to fund an additional planner.

The anticipated new hire, expected later this year, will boost the CRGC staff to six full-time employees, three of whom will be planners.

However, Commissioner Rodger Nichols, who represents Wasco County on the Columbia River Gorge Commission, said that while the hiring of an additional planner is very good news, it needs to be kept in perspective.

“In the past, there have been as many as 10 on the staff,” Nichols pointed out. “Obviously, it will help some, but our biggest obstacle in doing our job properly is having to deal with Klickitat County Scenic Area applications directly.

“The other five counties all have passed their own land use ordinances mirroring those of the Scenic Area, and handle all the applications in the Scenic Area themselves. In Klickitat County, all Scenic Area applications come directly to us.”

Wolniakowski said the CRGC team is continuing its ongoing efforts to “nail down boundary issues” within the entire National Scenic Area, but Wasco County Commissioner Scott Hege was skeptical.

“This has been under discussion for a decade, and it seems like no progress to me,” Hege said, adding that he would like to be assured that the county’s efforts to work with the CRGC are not being wasted.

“The counties are trying to have more input for 2020 (planning),” Hege explained. “Is our energy and effort being given the proper due, or is it being treated like a comment from anyone else?”

Wolniakowski assured Hege the work of the counties is being given a great deal of weight in the plan revision process.

“We are having policy-level discussions with county planning directors very regularly,” she responded. “We’re a team. County planners are not being treated only as comments. We want to make sure the new plan is workable, and it’s something we can all get behind.”

Wolniakowski pointed out that the partnership among the six National Scenic Area counties and CRGC planning staff is critical “to make sure any kind of revisions are workable solutions. That makes it a much more efficient process, and we’re very committed to that.”

“We’re very thankful Wasco County is proactively engaged with us,” she added. Wasco County Administrator Tyler Stone said he is confident the county’s input is being put to effective use by representatives of the CRGC.

“We are trying to bring the county’s voice and expertise more deeply into the process, and we appreciate that you are hearing our voice,” Stone told Wolniakowski.

According to Gist, a major step in the planning process will occur next month.

“The next benchmark on our schedule is to have a commission-approved list of priority revisions,” she noted. “We anticipate presenting a list of priority issues to address during the plan revision process at the September 2017 meeting.”

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