Columbia River Gorge Commission hires Darren Nichols as new executive director

February 8, 2012

For its next executive director, the bi-state Columbia River Gorge Commission reached into the senior ranks of the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development.

Commissioners appointed Darren J. Nichols, a Salem resident, in late December as the successor to longtime executive director Jill Arens, who left the commission at the end of November after a nearly six-year term.

Nichols, the commission's seventh executive director, is scheduled to assume the position full-time Feb. 27. The commission is charged with regulating land-use development in the General Management Areas of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.

According to Commission Chairman Carl McNew, the commission received 72 applicantions for the position by the deadline and interviewed three finalists. He said the commissioners developed the selection criteria for a new executive director, then applied the criteria to all candidates.

"Some of the criteria included education and experience requirements, core competencies and characteristics such as a collaborative style, analytic thinking and other qualities that are expected of someone in a director-level position," McNew said.

"Darren has all the characteristics the Gorge Commissioners were looking for, and he is eager to begin work. We are fortunate to have him on our team, and look forward to working with him in these challenging times."

Since October 2006, Nichols has served as the Community Services Division manager for the Department of Land Conservation and Development, overseeing a staff of 14 in seven regional offices and helping local governments implement Oregon's statewide planning program.

Moreover, Nichols has been a certified law clerk in the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Oregon since August 2011, and expects to receive a law degree, with a focus on environmental and natural resource law, this year from the Lewis & Clark Law School.

During his time at the DLCD, Nichols had an opportunity to collaborate with Gorge Commission staff to develop an interstate framework addressing commission rules for urban area expansion. It's work Nichols hopes to build on as executive director of the Gorge Commission.

"I have always felt an awe for the National Scenic Area and often spend time here recreating, celebrating milestones and spending time with my family," Nichols notes. "I surprised my wife by bringing her to the Gorge for our honeymoon -it's just a very special place.

"This opportunity allows me to work in the Northwest in a role that is an ideal fit with my skills and experience, and with my passion for Northwest people, places and landscapes."

At the DLCD, Nichols' work has been focused on community development, resource conservation and regional planning.

"I have strong, positive relationships with local officials, Tribes, citizens, economic development and public agencies," Nichols noted. "I am very pleased with the successful solutions we forged all over the state, dealing with land use, urban and rural development, and natural resource protection. I see the potential for similar solutions in the Gorge."

From his standpoint, Nichols said, the biggest challenge for the commission is to successfully implement "the careful balance between protection and development under the Columbia River Gorge Act." A more immediate challenge, he continued, is to "secure stable funding commitments from both states and continue to work closely with interested partners."

Another challenge for the commission will be to complete the Vital Signs Indicators project.

"The indicators will tell us what we're doing well and where there is room for improvement," Nichols said. "We have an excellent staff team working on the project. Now we need a stable revenue stream to complete the work and start accruing returns on the investment."

Going forward, the commission will focus on efforts that bring the greatest value to the region and build support for the commission, Nichols said.

"I am currently contacting commissioners, community leaders and agencies to explore innovative funding options and build partnerships. We want to use what we've learned over the first 25 years to do an even better job supporting the Gorge and its communities."

Gorge Commission executive directors: Six people have served as executive director of the Gorge Commission since its establishment in the late 1980s. Dick Benner was the first. He was followed by Jonathan Doherty, Claire Puchy (interim appointment), Martha Bennett, Al Wright (interim appointment) and Jill Arens.

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