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Executive director: Gorge Commission ‘on verge of collapse’ due to funding

Shortages in funding to the Columbia River Gorge Commission are leading to compromises in terms of how effective the agency can be when it comes to addressing the planning needs of the National Scenic Area, according to its executive director.

The Gorge Commission is regularly charged with maintaining and updating a management plan for multiple aspects of the Gorge, including the region’s many recreational and scenic resources. The current plan was finalized in 1991 and only parts pertaining to land use and scenic resources were updated in 2004.

Other than that, the rest of the plan remains the same, including the chapter on what the Gorge’s recreational landscape looks like, which has changed dramatically since the passage of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act in 1986 and the subsequent development of the Commission and its management plan.

Darren Nichols, executive director of the Gorge Commission, said ideally the plan should be updated every five to 10 years, but the staffing just isn’t there to keep up with the demands of an agency that has seen shrinking budgets through the recession in a region with ever-increasing recreational opportunities.

“It’s fairly complete, but it is reflective essentially of what was happening here in 1987, 1988, through 1990 because that was when the data was being collected,” Nichols said. “If you think about what was happening at that time, wind surfing was just emerging; it was brand new.

“Kite boarding was not here, stand-up paddle boarding was not here, mountain biking wasn’t here yet, geocaching wasn’t here yet, there’s a long list of recreational activities that were not here.”

But updating at least the recreation chapter of the management plan requires thorough analysis, which Nichols said would require more than the two planners the Commission currently employs.

The Commission gets its funding from Oregon and Washington and is currently operating on a budget of $853,000, divided evenly between the two states. That’s down from the $1.2 million Nichols said the Commission was allotted in 2007 to handle development review applications and other planning needs of six counties, 13 urban areas, four tribes, and a multitude of federal and state agencies within the National Scenic Area.

At that time there were five planners working for the commission, but the dwindling budget has whittled that number down to one and a half.

“We’re not in a healthy place right now and what’s interesting is 2014 is the year, the maximum outside window within which we should be doing a plan review again, but we barely have two dimes to rub together,” Nichols said. “I’ve been telling legislatures in both states that this experiment is almost broken. It’s on the verge of collapse. We’re holding it together, but we need the resources to keep up.”

This comes at a time when the popularity of the Columbia River Gorge is at an all-time high. According to an Interagency Recreation Strategy Report released earlier this year by the Commission, Washington’s population increased 182 percent and Oregon’s increased 152 percent between 1950 and 2010 and more than half of the population reported participating in some sort of outdoor recreation between 2001 and 2002 in Washington. Seventy-three percent of households in Oregon reported recreating outdoors, as well.

Angie Brewer, senior regional planner for the Gorge Commission, said the influx in users and types of recreation in the Gorge over the last 27 years since the establishment of the National Scenic Area has been beneficial and continued growth could mean positive repercussions only if it is monitored properly, but that requires more time and resources than what Brewer and her fellow planner, Jennifer Kaden, have to work with.

“I think there is a disconnect in the promotion of sites and resources and the management of those resources. It seems like there are some state tourism initiatives that are trying to encourage people to come out here but are not funding their recreation management agencies enough to keep up with the new demand on their resources,” Brewer said. “We would be one of those underfunded agencies.”

Not only are more people coming to the Gorge these days, they’re also spending more money here. According to data by the Oregon and Washington Tourism Commission and Washington Department of Commerce, visitors to the Gorge spent $295 million here in 2011, up from $121 million spent in 1991.

With the amount of recreationists increasing every year, Nichols worries that the Gorge will be “loved to death” if the Commission isn’t able to gain more oversight on recreational development throughout the area.

In order to do that, he said Oregon and Washington have to step up their game.

“The states made a significant commitment to one another and to the nation and to the citizens that live here and have ignored it for 27 years. I think there’s a responsibility here that the states of Oregon and Washington have forgotten and we’re hoping to remind them of that,” Nichols said.

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