New Gorge Commission Recreation Committee sees high interest from community

A new committee created specifically to address the high demands of the recreation landscape throughout the Columbia River Gorge gained ample attention from community groups and landowners at its first meeting.

The Columbia River Gorge Commission recently appointed six commissioners to its recreation committee, but only two were in attendance at its first meeting on Monday. Lorrie DeKay, the recreation committee’s chairperson, and Commissioner Janet Wainwright attended the meeting along with Angie Brewer, senior regional planner on the Gorge Commission staff who was on hand to offer guidance to the group.

Commissioners Bowen Blair, Gorham Blaine, Keith Chamberlin, as well as ex officio member Lynn Burdett are also on the recreation committee, but were unable to attend the first meeting.

Despite the attendance of only two committee members, a robust conversation flowed throughout the meeting due to the presence of representatives from groups and landowners with a vested interest in recreation from all over the Gorge.

Landowners concerned about property rights versus use by hikers and other recreationists, the Friends of the Columbia River Gorge, the Port of Skamania County, the Cape Horn Conservancy and the Stevenson City Council were all represented at Monday’s meeting.

“The reality is, and I think this is evidenced by the number of people here today, that this is an issue that needs public engagement. I would concur with you that private landowners, school systems, county government, and nonprofits all need to be engaged in this process, and it’s going to be a messy process,” said Keith Brown, chairman of the board of directors for The Friends of the Gorge. “We all have different issues, but all of us are here because it’s important and regardless of how you approach this, the hikers aren’t going to stop coming.”

The management plan the Gorge Commission uses to keep track of the multiple resources throughout the Gorge, including the vast recreational landscape here, was brought up as a priority on Monday. Portions of the management plan, which was originally finalized in 1991, were updated in 2004, but the part of the plan relating to recreation was untouched.

That means all growth when it comes to recreation in the Gorge since the late 1980s is largely unaccounted for within the current recreation chapter of the Gorge Commission’s management plan. The Commission’s executive director, Darren Nichols, has stated in the past that the management plan is ideally updated every 10 years and that he simply lacks the staff and resources to examine and modernize it as often as it should be.

“There is the recognition that what we’ve got right now isn’t working like we need it to, but there are good intentions behind all of it. We all want resource protection, we all want something that will bring folks to the region to visit and help support the communities, we all want respect for the resources, respect for private landowners,” Brewer said. “It’s literally a balancing act of resource protection and respect for the landowners and we simply do not have the staff or the planning process in place that needs to be there to do it well.”

The first portion of the committee’s agenda entailed identifying which community groups would be interested in offering input on recreation in the Gorge and building ties with those groups. For those commissioners in attendance, those agenda items were easily taken care of by the engagement of the representative groups that showed up on Monday, but in future meetings, tackling the funding and resource issues the commission is facing as a whole will have to be placed front and center.

“The Gorge Commission needs to be involved in these recreation issues and we need to be seen as adding value to the whole conversation,” Wainwright said. “If we’re a hardworking committee then we will hopefully achieve some goals to take to show the states. I’m a Washington State appointee and I want to be able to show my governor and the governor’s staff that we are actually working on these issues. Recreation is a huge, huge issue for Gov. Inslee. He understands the challenges and he understands the opportunities and I know he is very interested in the Gorge.”

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