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Martha Bennett has been at the helm of one of the newest, most controversial and singularly important local governments — the Columbia Gorge Commission — for nearly five years. Next month, she’ll be gone, leaving the executive director chair and taking a new job as Ashland’s new city administrator. The Gorge Commisson heads up land use planning for scenic, cultural, natural and recreational resources in the 300,000-acre National Scenic Area of the Columbia River Gorge. (Maps here and here.) The Commission’s budget is about $830,000 per year. It has a staff of ten people, and 12 voting commissioners (six from Oregon, six from Washington). Area newspapers have run short articles articles about Bennett’s resignation, but nothing extensive. Bennett, 38, of Hood River, recently took some time to answer a number of questions from New West Columbia Gorge. Those are reproduced below, almost entirely unedited...

View From the Director’s Seat

Martha Bennett has been at the helm of one of the newest, most controversial and singularly important local governments — the Columbia Gorge Commission — for nearly five years. Next month, she’ll be gone, leaving the executive director chair and taking a new job as Ashland’s new city administrator.

The Gorge Commisson heads up land use planning for scenic, cultural, natural and recreational resources in the 300,000-acre National Scenic Area of the Columbia River Gorge. (Maps here and here.) The Commission’s budget is about $830,000 per year. It has a staff of ten people, and 12 voting commissioners (six from Oregon, six from Washington).

Area newspapers have run short articles articles about Bennett’s resignation, but nothing extensive. Bennett, 38, of Hood River, recently took some time to answer a number of questions from New West Columbia Gorge. Those are reproduced below, almost entirely unedited:

QUESTIONS FOR MARTHA BENNETT

New West Question: Is the Gorge Commission’s executive director a position that allows for great strides or initiatives, or does it demand more of a steady hand on the rudder?

Martha Bennett’s Answer: Both and neither.  The Commission’s director needs to be a strategic thinker and must keep all things in perspective.  Sometimes, that requires an extremely pragmatic approach to issues, which results in only in incremental change.  On other issues, you really need to think about the effect of a policy or program is in the long term, say 50, 100, or 200 years from now.  On those “long-horizon issues,” you can be much more creative and sometimes can make great strides. 

On the shorter-term issues, you have to consider the long-term, but you also may  have to chose between what’s most desirable and what’s actually achievable.  The Director needs to know how to take baby steps as well as giant leaps.

How would you characterize your work as director, your style of leadership and the times themselves?

When I came to the Gorge Commission, things were fairly chaotic.  Three days before I started work, the Washington Supreme Court ruled against the Commission in the Bea case.  We had just started the complex, multi-year effort to review the Management Plan.  We had an Oregon
committee about to begin a series of oversight hearings about our operations.  We had 21 active legal cases and seven appeals in front of the Commission.

Today, things are much calmer.  We completed Plan Review in 2004, and through that process we addressed many of the issues that had been litigated or had been subjects of appeal.  There are definitely things we wish we had been able to do, but we had managed to address issues that really irritated counties and citizens while keeping the protection for Gorge resources very high. We have also settled many of the legal cases, and the level of appeals has dropped dramatically. (The last appeal heard by the Commission was in June 2004.)

We’ve done this by being focused only on protecting Gorge resources and by working closely with counties and with applicants to address potential problems with policies and permits as early as possible.

I have a hard time giving a short-hand description of my leadership style.  I consider myself more a facilitator than a leader. I believe strongly in working with people to understand their goals or point of view.  I also believe strongly in helping others — whether it’s counties, citizens, or interest groups — figure out how they can meet their objectives within the constraints of the Scenic Area Act and the Management Plan.  I can’t always help people or agree with them, but I can usually have a constructive discussion about what is possible. 

I have really enjoyed working here and what I have been able to achieve. I think that the entire system of governance has matured over the past five years, and it has been a lot of fun to be part of that.  I also think the political atmosphere has matured.  In some ways, this has been good, and in other ways, it has been difficult.  Even though I truly don’t believe that Oregon’s Ballot Measure 37 applies in the Scenic Area, it has a very real effect on the political climate. Some people believe that’s bad, others good.  Whatever your judgment, it transforms the political arena and politicizes any discussion about “fairness.”

What are Gorge news organizations doing well in their coverage of Columbia Gorge issues? And what should reporters here take more time to look into?

I think the media is doing a pretty good job of covering the really big issues like the Casino. I wish that the Gorge media (with a couple of exceptions) treated the Gorge as a region rather than as a bunch of neighborhoods. The exceptions are The Dalles Chronicle, which recognizes the regional character and the Columbian, which does an outstanding job. 

Some of the media are just too focused on the things happening in their circulation area.  I don’t think the people who live here and work here place the same geographic limits on themselves as media coverage would suggest. People live in White Salmon, work in The Dalles, shop in Hood River, and fish the Klickitat. I wish there was more cross-coverage.  For example, we have a really interesting problem with school enrollment in the greater Hood River/ White Salmon area.  Hood River schools are bursting at the seams (and they need land for new schools) and White Salmon (and Lyle and Trout Lake) enrollments are shrinking.  What is really going on here and how is that darned state line interfering with the schools’ abilities to work together? 

The media could play an important role in not just writing about the local issue.  This is true for National Scenic Area issues too.
 

How would you characterize the relationships between the Gorge Commission and local governments? Do those vary by government, and if yes, which ones are cooperative, and which more combative?

I think that overall, our relationships with the six Gorge counties is pretty good.  Each of the six counties has its own set of quirks, given the different issues, political points of view, and constraints they each face.  I’ve seen the biggest change in Skamania County in the last
five years, and because they have 50 percent of the private land in the Scenic Area (and therefore the biggest share of private development), it has been a blast to work with them.  They are very professional and have the best enforcement program in the Gorge.

No matter their idiosyncrasies, the Counties all want to provide the best possible services to their citizens.  We sometimes disagree with them about the particular actions they should take, but we are lucky to work with a set of county elected officials who are service-oriented.

What are, in your view, the major environmental or developmental issues affecting the Gorge now, or in the near future?

In no particular order:

”¢ Population growth generally.  More people are moving here, more people are recreating here.  It’s harder to protect the landscape and it’s harder to provide a quality recreation experience.  Several communities are having serious discussions about expanding their urban area boundaries.

”¢ The increasing price of land in the Gorge. This is not only pricing some people out of the market, but also is creating a market for larger and larger homes.  Whether you want a big house or not, the bigger a house, the harder it is to make it blend in with the scenery, which is one of the things we try to do to preserve the jaw-dropping vistas.

”¢ The continuing trend away from “traditional” industry (whether it is forest management, farming, or aluminum smelting) to knowledge industry and tourism. This is both terrific and terrible.  And for me, this is where the casino fits in.

”¢ Air quality. It’s really a problem, but it’s complex and probably needs to be solved in a cooperative rather than regulatory way because so many people need to be part of the solution.
 

Is there any way to quantify development pressure in the Gorge? Or, in other words, for people to get a sense on how much is being held back (for good or ill) by National Scenic Area regulations?

Not yet.  We’re working on it, though.  The Commission wants to develop a set of outcome measures that might help us get a handle on the big picture.  For example, how good a job are we doing in protecting the scenery?  Once we get measures in place (and used for a few years), it will help the Commission decide whether we’re doing well or poorly in achieving the Act’s purposes.
 
I do think you can look at some comparable places, though, and see what happens if you are not aggressive.  Mammoth Lakes (California), the resort areas of Colorado, Park City, Tahoe — these are all places where the development has become the view instead of the landscape. We’re doing well so far, but it’s going to get harder.
 

I’m given to understand that the Commission has a goal of reviewing 70 percent of county development decisions. My question: Roughly what percentage does Commission staff review now? What are those reviews showing?

Now that we are fully staffed, we’re actually getting to about 75 percent of the applications.  We used to review around 50 percent. 

We do two things with those reviews. First, we try to prevent problems with individual applications — solve problems before someone appeals a proposal. It helps us work with the counties much earlier in the development process than we used to. This is working really well.  Since we started doing this back in 2001, we’ve dramatically cut appeals.  This is something started by Claire Puchy, our previous executive director.
 
We also use these reviews to identify patterns of potential problems. We use the issues that come up again and again as the foundation for policy discussions, training, and sometimes for conversations with particular problems. For example, we know from this monitoring that we have a lot of people who want to build metal buildings or put metal roofs on their homes. We also know from our experience that metal is not an easy material in the gorge because shiny buildings are hard to hide. So, we have spent staff time in the past year trying to find metal materials that might be less shiny.  We also know from this monitoring that there is a great deal of demand, especially close to employment centers for some really big houses, and sooner or later we’ll need to decide whether we’re going to set limits.  We also know that the income test for getting a house on prime farm land is a difficult regulation for many people. These issues end up on our work plan, which is another critical part of monitoring.
 

Air quality: How central of an issue will this become, both in a) actual acidity and haze, and b) the efforts to alleviate those?

I look at it in a fairly simple way. We have thousands of regulations and hundreds of projects to protect the qualities of the [National Scenic Area], but the critical views in that Scenic Area are increasingly obscured by haze. Haze is getting worse. 

We have invested millions of public and private dollars and hours and yet we’re losing our investment because of haze. More importantly, as we transition to a new economy, the quality of our environment and of recreation is our economic competitive advantage. In other words, companies move here because it’s beautiful and their employees can recreate. If it’s possible to improve haze because it’s coming from man-made causes, we should do it. It might take us a long time and we may need cooperation from citizens, business, and government, but we should do it. 

Once the phase I air quality study is done, we’ll have a better idea of how we can get the biggest bang for our buck by working on the sources that are causing more of the haze. 
 
As far as the acidity problem, the Forest Service has done a study that suggests we have very acidic fog and rain.  They’re conducting another study right now which should either reinforce or refute their findings. If it’s as serious as the last study impacts, we should be worried about acidity.  We shouldn’t worry only because of rock art and lichens but because it will affect orchards and vineyards and forests and humans. Again, though, I am hopeful that a non regulatory solution can be found.

Doug’s Beach: The railroad wants a passing lane there, but it will significantly impact a central windsurfing area. It strikes me as an issue of commerce versus culture. Is that, in your opinion, an accurate assessment?

I think there are two things going on at Doug’s Beach. First, you have a classic case of a project that benefits people (commerce) outside the Gorge (everyone who uses the railroad) with all of the negative impacts occurring inside the Gorge.  Most of the transportation projects in the Gorge do this — they move goods and services through the Gorge without dropping much benefit (jobs, dollars, etc) inside.
 
Second, you have a piece of ground where all of the Gorge’s resources are present.  It’s a premiere windsurfing site, it is a wildlife corridor, it has salmon, it’s a plant habitat, it’s culturally important (Lewis and Clark, for example), and it’s highly visible. It’s constrained by the river and the highway and mostly owned by the railroad. It’s been owned by the railroad since the 1880s and there are federal laws that give railroads special rights. Is it any shock than any project on this property would be controversial?  And, as the government who gets to make decisions about projects there, we have to weigh all of these competing interests and do the best we can.
 
No, there aren’t many projects like this one in the Gorge.

(Editor’s note: The windsurfers aren’t taking this laying down. They’ve formed an interest group, and several parties have appealed the railroad’s plans at Doug’s Beach.)

How are the commissioners working as a group? Diversely opinioned or unified along certain lines? Do they represent common goals or divergent community interests?

The Commission is awesome, and they are a very pragmatic group right now.  They are structured by the Act to be diverse (three from Oregon, three from Washington, one from each Gorge County), and the Act’s structure forces them to always seek the middle ground.  So, yes, they have diverse opinions, but because they want to get things done, they often have to work towards the most moderate position.  They nearly always have to compromise.

How far along in the search process is the Commission for the next executive director? What’s the timeline for hiring a new director?

On April 11, the Commission will decide what kind of person they are looking for, and then they will begin to recruit. I expect it will be September 1 before they have a new director.  In the mean time, they are looking for an interim director to take up the slack.
 

What’s the highest, best purpose the Gorge Commission can serve in the Gorge? To lead communities on major issue, or to play a sort of land use referee, or some other role?

I think the Commission is lucky because it always things regionally. Apart from setting land use policy, I think the Commission could play a larger role in convening people in the Gorge to work together on projects that benefit everyone. I also think the Commission could actually develop and implement projects to improve and enhance the scenery. It will take more staff and more funding, though.

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