The Columbia River Gorge Commission gave unanimous approval Tuesday for a multi-year, multi-agency work plan aimed at protecting air quality in the Gorge.
The work plan, which will take several years to complete, will continue to monitor air quality in the Scenic Area and identify emission sources inside and outside the Gorge. A broad-based advisory committee that includes agencies, citizens and the environmental and industry representatives will review the results of the project's technical studies and develop recommendations for a strategy for air quality and supporting the economy in the Scenic Area.
The study will be implemented by the Washington Department of Ecology, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, the Southwest Washington Clean Air Agency and the U.S. Forest Service. Funding estimates for the study's work plan, ranging from $3 million to $9 million, are preliminary because the scope of later phases of technical studies depend on what's discovered in the initial study phase.
At Tuesday's meeting, representatives from Friends of the Gorge, Columbia River Audubon and Central Cascade Alliance testified that the work plan should include interim air quality regulations while the multi-year project is under way.
"Because the work plan will take so long, some interim strategies are necessary," said Judith Maule, Executive Director of Central Cascade Alliance.
However, officials from Klickitat, Hood River and Skamania Counties-as well as the agencies involved in writing and implementing the study-said there is not sufficient scientific data available to support interim air-quality rules.
"Interim rules wouldn't be based on good science," said Dana Peck, Resource Development Director for Klickitat County. "It's crucial that the study be done right."
Commissioners, in approving the study without interim regulations, noted the work plan has enough built-in flexibility to add rules if warranted.
"The advisory committee could phase in interim regulations if they become necessary," said Katharine Sheehan, a Gorge Commissioner from Washougal.
"It's been phenomenal how so many different stakeholders pulled together on this," she added. "They've been very responsive to public comments, and the work plan's flexibility is an excellent example of this responsiveness."
In other action Tuesday, the Gorge Commission decided to send a letter to the bureau of Indian Affairs asking it to defer an application from the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs to convert 160 acres of recently purchased fee land to tribal trust land east of Hood River until the application can be reviewed by the Forest Service. The commission also requested that an environmental impact statement be completed before the BIA acts on the application.
The tribes have announced they intend to build a casino near the new Mark Hatfield State Park just east of Hood River on 40 acres of trust land that is exempt from Scenic Area rules. If the transfer of the adjacent 160 acres is approved by the BIA, the uses on that parcel also would be free from Scenic Area regulations.
"Section 14 (d) of the Scenic Area Act requires that federal decisions affecting the Scenic Area be reviewed by the Forest Service to determine that they are consistent with the act," said Martha Bennett, the commission's executive director. "Staff believes that BIA cannot make a decision to convert the property until the Forest Service has determined that the acquisition would be consistent with the Scenic Area Act."
Bennett also voiced concern about the Warm Springs tribes' proposed transfer setting precedents for converting lands from fee to trust in the General Management Area for uses that would not otherwise be permitted outside of urban areas.
"If fee land can be converted for a casino, then other fee land could theoretically be converted for any purpose, and the scenic quality of the Gorge cannot be protected," she said.
In another action Tuesday, the commission resolved a land-use violation by Klickitat County landowner Dan Stingl stemming from construction of an RV garage in 1998.
Stingl agreed to mitigate the impacts of the violation by landscaping the area where the garage was constructed with native trees, by painting the garage's exterior dark brown and treating its roof to reduce reflectivity.