Hearings examine Gorge Commission role

The first of three Oregon hearings centered on the role of the Columbia River Gorge Commission will take place from 2-8 p.m. on Friday at The Discovery Center in The Dalles.

The formal review was initiated by Sen. Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day, after he and other legislators were flooded by an "outpouring" of complaints by both citizens and local governments. These criticisms centered on perceived unfairness in the administration of the National Scenic Act land-use laws that were developed by the Gorge Commission in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service.

"The bottom line here is that there is neither a prospect nor desire to repeal the Act -- but there is a strong desire among Oregon and Washington legislators to improve services to taxpayers," said Ferrioli.

To ensure the Gorge Commission was following proper protocol in its decision-making processes, Ferrioli, who is chair of the Joint Natural Resources Committee, worked with his fellow legislators to set up the Subcommittee on Columbia River Gorge Commission Review. He made that move after obtaining a legal opinion by the state legislative counsel last year that, although the Gorge Commission was overseeing federal law, it had been set up through a bi-state compact between Oregon and Washington and was funded at the state level -- thereby making it accountable for its actions to each state.

"I want to know with absolute clarity where our authority as a state leaves off and the federal authority begins," said Ferrioli, who has also invited Washington legislators to take part in the hearings.

"If the Gorge Commission is indeed a state agency we have the responsibility to make sure it follows the law and tells the truth," he said.

Ferrioli's co-chairs during the three formal reviews -- the second and third to take place in June and October -- will be Hood River's Rep. Patti Smith, R-Corbett, and Rep. Jeff Kropf, R-Halsey.

"We have listened to our constituents and are really looking forward to this opportunity to better understand their issues and, hopefully, develop a better working relationship between the Gorge Commission and Scenic Area citizens," Smith said.

The bi-partisan panel also seats five other legislators from throughout the state, including the controversial appointment of Rep. Chris Beck, D-Portland.

Gorge Reality, a property rights watchdog group, claims Beck's appointment is a "conflict of interest" since he is on the board of directors for Friends of the Columbia Gorge, a Portland-based environmental group, and the Trust for Public Lands, an agency that has come under fire from Gorge officials for its land acquisition practices.

However, both Ferrioli and Smith said Beck's inclusion will ensure balance during the hearings which will also include testimony from landowners who have been hard-hit economically by Scenic Area regulations.

Martha Bennett, executive director of the Gorge Commission, will be one of the keynote speakers at the March 15 forum. In preparation, she will be reviewing the talking points of her testimony during the afternoon session of Tuesday's Gorge Commission meeting at the Hood River Inn.

Also on the invited speaker list is Daniel Harkenrider, manager of the Forest Service Scenic Area office in Hood River. Both agency representatives have been asked to provide background on the passage of the Scenic Area Act in 1986 and the subsequent development of land-use zoning to protect the cultural, scenic, natural and recreational resources as mandated by the federal law.

According to Smith, Bennett will also outline the steps taken to address the second purpose of the Act, which was to promote economic development within the urban centers that was consistent with protection standards.

How these dual purposes are applied and enforced on the ground will be addressed by Todd Cornett, Wasco County planning director, and other citizens and Mid-Columbia officials. The task force requests that 25 copies of prepared testimony and exhibits be presented to Linda Gatto, committee assistant, at the time a speaker takes the stand.

Hood River's Sen. Rick Metsger, D-Welches, plans to attend the hearings and both U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., and his Washington counterpart U.S. Republican Rep. Doc Hastings have neen issued special invitations. In February, Walden stated his intent to schedule a federal review of the Scenic Act and its practical application over the past 15 years.

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