By Tom Callis
Peninsula Daily News
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The 24-year-old agreement with Oregon and the federal government regulates, through a 13-member commission, land use in the Columbia River Gorge Scenic Area, which spans three counties in Washington and three in Oregon. It's purpose is to protect natural resources.
Rep. Kevin Van De Wege, D-Sequim, introduced the state legislation, known as House Bill 3132, last month as a cost-saving measure.
He said he believed the federal government would take over the state's role of contributing funds to the Columbia River Gorge Commission if it backed out of the agreement, authorized by Congress in 1986.
The state Legislature is trying to resolve a $2.8 billion deficit this session.
"This is simply trying to cut back state government," Van De Wege said, "trying to save the taxpayer money.
"We're in a very difficult situation."
Funding for the commission in the House of Representatives is handled through the General Government and Appropriations Committee, on which Van De Wege serves.
The bill passed the committee Feb. 5 and is up for consideration by the House Rules Committee.
The head of the commission, funded by Oregon and Washington, and two state representatives from the gorge area who spoke with the Peninsula Daily News, said they were surprised by the move, which would save the state only about $212,500 per year, based on what was approved in its 2009-2011 budget.
Board's future threatened
And commission Executive Director Jill Arens, who became aware of the bill about 10 days ago after being contacted by the state Office of Financial Management, said Thursday the bi-state board would become defunct if Washington state chose to no longer contribute funding.
"According to the compact, both states will pay equally," she said. "If one state gives $200, and another $100, we can only spend $100 from each state.
"So, if one state obligates zero dollars, the other can budget however much they want, but we have no money to spend."
The compact also requires the commission to have six members from Washington state.
While the U.S. Forest Service is a "partner" with the commission and has a nonvoting representative on the board, Arens added she doesn't think it would take the two states' role of managing land use in the scenic area.
"We do have a federal partner; they're responsible for the special management area," she said. "But about half of the land in the scenic area is private.
"I cannot imagine that the Forest Service would want to regulate land use on private land."
Van De Wege said his staff researched the compact and told him the federal government would fund the commission -- or whatever would replace it -- if the state backed out.
Deficit is a factor
Even if the federal government wouldn't step in to fund or replace what the commission does now, Van De Wege said he may still support the bill because of the growing deficit the state is facing.
"We would have to make that decision at that point in time," he said, but added: "I'm not going to screw my colleagues down there and put them in a bad situation where no work was being done."
Two of those colleagues, Rep. Bruce Chandler, R-Granger, and Rep. Jim Jacks, D-Vancouver, told the PDN Van De Wege notified them of the bill when he introduced it Jan. 26.
"I was actually surprised to see it," said Chandler on Thursday.
"But I think that if what they are looking for is a way to save some money, I think that's worth some discussion."
The 15th District representative added he doesn't think the bill would have a significant impact on land use regulations since two of the three Washington counties involved -- Clark and Skamania -- have ordinances that comply with the congressional act.
The third county, Klickitat, has a scenic area land use plan administered and enforced by the Forest Service.
"However, there may be some unintended consequences," Chandler added, "and we would have to look very carefully at it."
Jacks, who represents the 49th District, said he will work to ensure the commission remains funded and wasn't sure if the Forest Service would be willing to take on the responsibility.
Van De Wege has introduced other legislation to scale back state-funded committees.
House Bill 2935 would reduce the number of state Growth Management Act Hearing Boards from five to two. It would also consolidate the boards and the Environmental Hearings Office under a new office.
Reporter Tom Callis can be reached at 360-417-3532 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.