With heavy attendance and approximately 200 comments taken, representatives of the Columbia River Gorge Commission said they were generally satisfied with the results of the June 5 public meeting in Lyle.
The meeting, designed to discuss ways to revise the National Scenic Area Management Plan, was one of a series of six such meetings in counties with land included within the National Scenic Area.
Nevertheless, there was disappointment in the aftermath of the Lyle meeting, and it was expressed by Gorge Commission detractors and supporters alike.
"I've really been surprised by the press coverage," said Allen Bell, acting executive director of the CRGC. "Frankly, people are focusing on negative things. For the last two years, we've been hearing that the Gorge Commission needs to go out and talk to people in the community. Now that we do it, the headline is that the crowds are small and that people weren't allowed to speak at a microphone."
Bell pointed out that there were about 130 people at the Lyle meeting, with roughly 200 comments provided.
"That's pretty darn good," he said. "There were people protesting outside, and that's OK too. We want to get all perspectives."
During the meeting in Lyle, approximately 35 people walked outside with signs to protest the Gorge Commission and restrictions created by the National Scenic Area Act. Many of them believed the hearings are not being conducted fairly.
"It's very typical," said Janis Sauter, a member of Gorge Reality, Inc., a group opposed to the Gorge Commission. "There is no real desire to gather public input, it's more to facilitate the outcome. Until the people's voice is really heard, this (National Scenic Area) will never be accepted."
Jim Hulbert, a private contractor from White Salmon who organized the Gorge Commission meetings and helped plan the format, said he was upset with the media coverage of the events.
"I'm concerned about some of the coverage," Hulbert said. "It seems one-sided in some newspapers. I was pretty disappointed in that."
Hulbert said the system was designed to maximize citizen input, not limit it, and he believed many useful comments were received.
"Our feelings were, the forum we provided -- an open house with work stations -- allowed more efficient use of the public's time," Hulbert said. "We had a three-hour forum, but with over 100 people there, it would be hard to hear every comment. They (Gorge Commission) are trying to go out and give people a chance to express their ideas. Some people took time to sit down with the planners and bend their ear for quite awhile."
All three members of the Klickitat County Board of Commissioners were at the Lyle hearing, and Commissioner Don Struck noted that the Lyle meeting drew one of the biggest crowds.
"There was a huge turnout. Lyle's meeting was second-largest only to Multnomah County," he said.
Struck said he too was concerned about a lack of opportunity for public testimony, and as a result the county would hold its own meeting on the issue soon, in either Lyle or White Salmon.
Struck said the County Commissioners would use the meeting to gather comments and present that information to the Gorge Commission.
"We'll offer what we see as needed changes," Struck said.
Sauter said she didn't object to the concept of the National Scenic Area.
"The Scenic Act is not bad by itself," she explained. "The bad part is, it's so vaguely written and interpreted by the (Gorge Commission) staff that it goes way beyond the intent of Congress as far as we're concerned. That really needs to be addressed."
Sauter suggested that a third party be brought in to review the Management Plan, to see if it's being implemented properly.
She added that Gorge Reality has gathered 917 letters and 3,500 petition signatures in support of having the U.S. Congress conduct oversight hearings on the way the National Scenic Area is being managed by the Gorge Commission.
"It's not just a handful of people, but a lot of people who are upset with this and it needs to be looked at," she said.
Bell pointed out that there will be further meetings coming up in which people will have an open forum.
"We are not cutting out those opportunities," he stressed. "They will come in different parts of the process. This is a multi-phase, year-long process."
Bell said the current process was designed to provide citizens with an opportunity to meet directly with Scenic Area officials from the U.S. Forest Service and the Gorge Commission, with a record of all comments.
"This is an opportunity to talk directly to Gorge Commissioners and planning staff," said Bell. "I thought that's what people wanted. Instead it seems some people are upset they don't have a platform in a public meeting to bash the Gorge Commission."
Bell said the comments that have been gathered will be organized into topics so commissioners will be in a position to review them effectively.
Bingen Mayor Brian Prigel said he understood why the Gorge Commission handled the hearings the way they did.
"It's not supposed to be a public flogging," Prigel explained. "They are looking for constructive criticism of the Management Plan."
Struck said he would take a wait-and-see approach.
"I'll hold judgment on how effective this is, to see if they pay attention to comments from those who live in the National Scenic Area," Struck said. "They should have a weighted advantage. After all, it's their Gorge. If they (Gorge Commission) start to apply common sense to their decisions, then it will have been a worthwhile endeavor."
Struck pointed out that it wasn't just a few people who have complaints.
"Obviously, when you hear all the stories, either the Gorge Commission doesn't have any flexibility or they don't want to be flexible," he said.
The next meeting will be on Thursday, June 14, in Washougal at the Washougal Senior Center. That meeting runs from 6:30 p.m.-9:30 p.m.
Written comments will be accepted through the end of June. Address comments to: Gorge Commission, P.O. Box 730, White Salmon, Wash., 98672; or via e-mail: email@example.com.