Leaders plan Scenic Area forums

A long-time wish of many Gorge citizens for a federal hearing about Scenic Area issues is about to be granted.

Last week Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., said after 15 years it was time for the government officials to review how the first-ever legislative concept was meeting its reality.

"We'll hear about what is working well and the flaws and then we can evaluate that information and decide what changes may or may not be needed to be made in the statute and in public policy," said Walden, who wants the oversight hearing to take place in the near future.

Martha Bennett, executive director of the Gorge Commission, said the bi-state entity welcomes the opportunity to work with Walden and other interested legislators.

"If Congress has decided it wants a different level of protection for resources then we will be more than pleased to work with them," she said.

Gorge Reality, a private property rights watchdog group, is also "encouraged" about the upcoming hearing.

In January the Lyle-based non-profit organization submitted petitions signed by almost 5,000 citizens asking for federal legislators to take that action.

"Since its inception, the Gorge Commission (primarily the staff) has selectively interpreted and implemented the Act to their liking," said Janis Sauter, Gorge Reality vice-chair. "There are some major problems here and our hope is that the hearing will bring about desperately needed changes."

In late 1986 President Ronald Reagan signed into law the Columbia River National Scenic Area Act. The first chapter of that federal legislation was fraught with controversy as a struggle ensued to protect cultural, scenic, natural and recreational resources without infringing on private property rights.

Oregon legislators finally stepped in after hearing an outpouring of complaints for more than 10 years about the "inconsistent" and "inflexible" actions taken by the Gorge Commission.

To address those concerns, Sen. Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day, successfully lobbied for a state oversight committee that will conduct three official hearings this year.

The panel is made up of five bi-partisan Oregon legislators including co-chair Patti Smith, R-Corbett.n

The first hearing will be March 15 in The Dalles, followed by a June 26 forum in Hood River and an Oct. 15 session in Corbett. Smith said the actual meeting places and times have yet to be determined and will be advertised at a later date.

"What we're trying to accomplish is to ensure that the Scenic Act is administered with fairness and balance," said Smith.

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