A thunderstorm of challenges is about to blast through the region just as the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Act enters its silver anniversary year celebration.
Jill Arens, Columbia River Gorge Commission executive director for the past five years, tendered her resignation on Tuesday, Oct. 4, leaving the key leadership role vacant come January.
The commission, charged with overseeing land-use policy and decision-making for the six counties along the Gorge, is the governing body for the federally legislated National Scenic Area Act management plans.
"The economic forecasts for Oregon and Washington (which fund the commission) are bleak for the next three years," said Arens via email, when asked about reasons behind her resignation.
"It's been challenging at times but also stimulating and very positive. It's been a pleasure to work with committed staff and Gorge Commissioners," she added.
"This is a tremendous loss to the communities. Jill has been a driving force in collaboration and reaching out across both states," said Joyce Reinig, chair of the commission and Hood River County representative.
In addition to the loss of Arens, Reinig noted the anticipated budget cuts from both Washington and Oregon legislatures now facing the commission, following three previous years of cuts.
"It's a major crisis," she said, "but we haven't given up on securing our funding, and we are committed to finding the right candidate to fill Jill's position."
The commission receives 50 percent of its $726,000 operating budget from the State of Oregon and 50 percent from Washington state. According to Reinig, the cuts could rise as high as 40 percent in coming years.
A "technical snafu" in the Washington 2012 budget process, which appears now to have been amended, originally completely eliminated funding for the commission in 2012.
"Both states have directed agencies to prepare 10 percent budget cuts from our current and next fiscal year. Over the last three years the Gorge Commission budget has decreased almost 40 percent, which has resulted in staff layoffs and reduction in days of operation from five to four," said Arens.
Although never having achieved optimal "full staffing," the commission at its high point had 10 full-time staff and a $1.2 million annual budget. Current staff is down to just over five full-time equivalent staff.
"Additional cuts will mean more staffing reductions; this means there is less access to the Gorge Commission for land owners and county partners," said Arens. "Without adequate staff to fulfill the mandates of the Scenic Area Act, some of our responsibilities cannot be performed."
"I certainly feel part of her decision to resign was related to the relentlessness and pressure of continuous budget cuts," said Reinig.
According to Reinig, Arens made it a priority and an outreach focus to change the nature of the agency's non-dedicated funding - which remains controlled by both states' legislatures - and pushed for alternate, stable funding streams.
Arens noted that continued decreased funding will lead to an "inability to respond to landowner requests for changes in uses allowed on their land."
"The federal law doesn't go away," said Reinig, even if the funding disappears. "It'll be, quite honestly, a real mess. Counties can't make decisions on expanding their urban growth boundaries, nor can counties respond to landowner requests affected by the Act."
The commission met in special session Oct. 5 to discuss both the impending budget crisis and strategies to secure a replacement for Arens during this critical time. The issues facing the incoming director are diverse.
"There are about four dozen entities with overlapping interests in the Gorge, from federal, state, county and local government, to the four treaty tribes, to chambers and special interest groups, and more," noted Arens. "The issues are complex and there are many opinions about each issue."
According to the commissioners gathered at the meeting, Arens provided expert leadership to the 13 Gorge commissioners and CRGC planning staff on the massive tasks facing the commission. She was recognized for her efforts to develop effective communications across multiple stakeholders. Arens' outreach work with municipalities, states and Native American tribes earned her a reputation as a strong coalition builder.
David Meriwether, Hood River county administrator, said "She was a great team player who was able to take the broad view of how the National Scenic Act worked together with communities.
"We will miss her leadership. She was engaging, cooperative and reasonable. She could balance the economic development needs and activities of cities, counties - the whole system, really," said Meriwether.
Still acting in her capacity as executive director, Arens initiates her upcoming departure with a statement about the future of the National Scenic Act vision for the Gorge:
"Citizen support for adequate funding for the Gorge Commission is an essential piece of our future. Writing your state legislators, the Oregon Joint Committee on Ways and Means, the Washington Senate Appropriations Committee and the Washington House Appropriations Committee are ways that each person can make a difference.
"The work that the Gorge Commission performs in the Scenic Area is a real bargain: It costs every Oregonian only a dime a year and only six cents a year for Washingtonians!"
Meanwhile, the commission is swinging into high gear to begin the candidate selection process, starting with a review of the job description for Arens position in light of the anticipated budget impacts.
The recruitment team hopes to advertise the position within a few weeks enabling a hire prior to Arens departure, thereby ensuring the new executive director one to two weeks of work alongside Arens.
Arens began her work as executive director of the Columbia River Gorge Commission in September 2006. She grew up in Hood River and received degrees from both Stanford and the University of Rhode Island. She succeeded Martha Bennett as the commission's fifth director.