A sustainable development monster

By Henry Lamb
web posted February 26, 2001

Regardless of the warm and fuzzy phrases that surround the concept of sustainable development, in practice, sustainable development is managed development. The Columbia River Gorge Commission is a classic example of how efforts to manage development result in the management of people, which abolishes property rights, and destroys individual freedom.

Consider Brian and Jody Bea, who applied for, and were granted, a permit to build their dream home on their 20-acre parcel of land in 1997. Just before the 4,000 square-foot home was finished, the Gorge Commission demanded a halt to the construction, and told the Beas they would have to move the structure because it was visible from the road. The Commission had approved the permit more than a year earlier as a part of the original process for the building permit. The Beas are still fighting the Commission - and are not living in their dream home.

Consider David and Beth Sauter, who lost their home to a forest fire in 1999, which started on U.S. Forest Service land, and quickly spread to their 30 acre parcel in the Gorge. They were not hurt, but their home turned to a pile of ash. They have been unable to rebuild because the Gorge Commission refuses to allow it.

Consider Howard and Jeanette Johnston, who bought five acres in the Columbia Gorge two years before there was a Gorge Commission. They obtained a permit for a mobile home to live in until they could build their dream home.

Enter the Gorge Commission in 1986. You guessed it, no home yet. The Gorge Commission says no.

Consider Gail Castle, whose 90-year old home in the Gorge was about to collapse. She wanted to build a modest home 10-feet away from the present structure, and demolish the old house. The Gorge Commission said no. It took more than a year to get the Commission to finally overturn their staff's decision, and allow her to finally begin construction.

The stories are endless. Who is the Columbia Gorge Commission, and where does it get the power to over-rule County governments and the rights of private property owners?

The three "Es"

The Columbia Gorge Commission is an example of sustainable development. Keep in mind that sustainable development is managing the balance between the three "Es": environmental protection, economic development, and social equity. To achieve that balance, someone, or some authority, has to decide what people may or may not do. The concept of sustainable development is incompatible with the concept of individual freedom. In the Columbia River Gorge Scenic Area, people are free do only what the Gorge Commission says they may do.

The Gorge Commission is a model of what the President's Council on Sustainable Development envisions in its "We Believe" statement number eight : "We need a new collaborative decision process that leads to better decisions; more rapid change; and more sensible use of human, natural, and financial resources in achieving our goals."

The Gorge Commission is a new mechanism created to produce "better decisions" and "more rapid change" toward the goals of sustainable development. The structure of this mechanism warrants close scrutiny. In 1986, Senator Mark Hatfield, and Congressman Dan Weaver introduced similar bills to create this monster. The idea was not theirs; they were the willing pawns of several familiar environmental organizations.

The Sierra Club boasts on its web site that in 1986 "they" got 270,000 acres "protected" through the Columbia Gorge Scenic Area Act. The bill passed the House by a vote of 252 to 138 on October 16, 1986, and was signed into law by President Reagan on November 17. Since then, the people of the Columbia River Gorge have lived under the dictatorial reign of the Gorge Commission.

The design of the structure is a stroke of genius: The federal government mandated that the States of Washington and Oregon enter into a bi-state agreement to create and fund a Commission designed by the feds. The 13 Commissioners are appointed by the two Governors and by the County Commissions of the affected counties. Once in place, however, the Commission is not accountable to any affected county, neither state, nor to the federal government. The Commission writes its own rules of procedure, subject to review or approval by no one.

The Commission's executive director, Claire Puchy, says: "The Gorge Commission is not a federal agency and therefore the Freedom of Information Act does not apply to the Gorge Commission". When challenged, the U.S. Attorney's office, James R. Shively, said: "...the States of Washington and Oregon have established the Commission through an interstate agreement. We believe the matter you wrote about [public disclosure] does not fall within the federal government's jurisdiction."

The Oregon State Deputy Attorney General, David Schumann, however, says: "The Commission is not a public body subject to the Oregon Public Records Law. Instead, it is a bi-state regional agency governed by federal law and an interstate compact."

Washington Governor Gary Locke hit the nail on the head. He said: "Because of the interstate nature of the Commission, no governing body presides over it."

So here we have a creature of government, consisting of 13 non-elected individuals, who exercise the power of government, with government funds, affecting the lives of thousands of people, who have absolutely no way to hold the monster accountable, nor even to see its records. One of the fundamental principles of freedom is that government is empowered by the consent of the governed. The Gorge Commission is not encumbered by this principle.

The Fourteenth Amendment says quite explicitly, that "No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law, nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."

The Gorge Commission is not even fazed by this awesome responsibility.

David Cannard, a former Gorge Commissioner, wrote in a letter to the editor of a local newspaper: "The people of the Gorge have a choice...if they don't like what we're doing here, they can move out!"

Cannard's letter illustrates the arrogance that often accompanies government power that is administered without the consent of the governed. But it is far more than arrogance. Someone, somewhere far removed from the Columbia River Gorge, has decided that places such as the Gorge should not be spoiled by people. No, the people whose families have lived in the Gorge for generations were not consulted. The Commission was an experimental device created to manage the people who live in the Gorge, with the long-term goal of getting the people out.

It has been quite successful. The Sauters, whose home burned, have spent more than $70,000 fighting the Commission, and have now bought land outside the Commission's jurisdiction. Land acquisition is a major activity of the Gorge Commission. Currently, at least 36 parcels are proposed for acquisition - using tax dollars to take private property off the tax rolls of affected counties.

Remember Senator Mark Hatfield, who introduced the Senate version of the Gorge Commission bill? He now is on the board of the Trust for Public Land (TPL), a tax-exempt foundation that is especially adept at acquiring private property in the Gorge, and selling it to the U.S.

Forest Service at a handsome profit. In Klickitat County, the TPL acquired 22 parcels, sold them all to the Forest Service, and realized a profit of $807,916. In Skamania County, TPL neted $549,590 in profits, selling 15 parcels to the feds.

Some of the transactions are disgusting. For example, on May 7, 1999, TPL acquired four parcels totaling 303.46 acres for $1.235 million. On the same day, the property was sold to the Forest Service for $1.285 million - a cool $50,000 for shuffling papers. It gets worse. On February 23, 2000, TPL acquired 159.23 acres for $137,250 which they held until April 27, then sold it to the Forest Service for $366,000 - realizing a profit of $228,750 in three months.

Skamania County Prosecuting Attorney, Bradley Andersen, wrote to Secretary Bruce Babbitt, Secretary Dan Glickman, and to President Bill Clinton, protesting the profiteering, and called for an investigation. He might as well have been spitting in the wind.

The Government Accounting Office did eventually attempt to audit some transactions between so-called environmental organizations and the federal government. When it came to the TPL, they refused to submit the requested information, claiming privilege resulting from contractual relationships.

This is sustainable development - and it is a monster. And it is spreading, multiplying, mutating, and getting worse. Florida has recently created a special appointed commission to oversee sustainable development there. The St. Louis area is developing a multi-county entity to have the same kinds of responsibilities. Across the land, communities of every size are confronting similar initiatives that will take the policy-making function away from elected officials and give it to non-elected commissions and councils - all under the warm and fuzzy language of sustainable development.

In every community, there are people like the Beas, the Sauters, the Johnstons, - being squashed by the wheels of government rolling toward sustainable development - without a care for the Constitution or the principles of freedom.

Henry Lamb is the executive vice president of the Environmental Conservation Organization, and chairman of Sovereignty International.

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