Mistrust festers at Gorge Act workshops

A1: Plan Review


News staff writer

The deep mistrust that highlighted early meetings for development of the National Scenic Area land-use plan has resurfaced.

About 35 protesters crowded the sidewalks in front of the Washougal, Wash., senior center on Thursday evening. They were objecting to the methodology used for gathering comment on the management plan adopted by the Columbia River Gorge Commission in 1991.

At issue was the feeling of a lack of open discussion at the recent series of workshops scheduled by the Gorge Commission and U.S. Forest Service. These forums required the public to broach changes to the plan with staffers from both agencies, which were then listed on flipcharts, or submit written remarks.

"Based on the Gorge Commission's past actions, we have no trust that what is written down at these sessions will be the same information that is entered on the formal record," asked Janis Sauter, vice-chair of Gorge Reality. That group submitted 915 letters to the Gorge Commission earlier this year asking for an independent review of the plan.

Those same concerns have led Skamania County, Wash., which holds the most Scenic Area acreage, to insist on three open forums that were all taped.

"Skamania County officials went to great lengths to make sure that all citizens had a voice and the comments were on record," said Gorge Commissioner Walt Loehrke, the county's appointee.

Jim Hulbert, a private contractor from White Salmon, Wash., who organized the Gorge Commission meetings and helped plan the format, disagreed that the system was unfair. He said it was designed to be pro-active and gather the maximum number of suggestions.

"This is probably the most public the Gorge Commission has been and hopefully at the end of this we'll see some progress," he said.

Portland resident Diana Karabut attended two of the six scheduled workshops and had no complaints with the process.

"I was very happy with the format, it gives people more of an opportunity to say something on each topic than they would have at a formal meeting," she said.

But Ralph Craig, a Scenic Area resident in Clark County, said it was not inclusive enough.

"I think everyone should have a say and that our state and elected officials should be present and have to hear it," he said.

Sauter said that is just what her group is trying to accomplish. During the three hour comment session, Gorge Reality members added more than 20 names to the almost 4,000 signatures on the petition they are circulating which asks for a U.S. Congressional hearing on the way the Scenic Area is being managed by the Gorge Commission. The group plans to submit that request when they have gathered 5,000 signatures.

Hulbert said public hearings will be held throughout the Gorge once the bi-state agency has selected topics for review from the list of comments he will compile and submit for its consideration. To address complaints within its borders about the lack of an open forum, Klickitat County, Wash., plans to hold its own meeting on the issue soon.

Written comments about the management plan will be accepted through the end of June. These can be sent to: Gorge Commission, PO Box 730, White Salmon, Wash., 98672; or via e-mail to crgcATgorge.net.

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