Commissioners’ mining overlay vote is a good first step

I had the honor of seeing our county government and citizens in action lately when I was invited to give the Invocation at the County Commissioners meeting last month on June 3. I had picked the date at random and arrived to find a packed hearing and the kind of testimony that makes your hands shake and your voice crack. Almost everyone in the room was there because they felt their families, their homes, and their quality of life was at stake. The tension was palpable.

The issue was the proposed mining overlay that would impact hundreds of families in Clark County, no small number of which live right here as part of our wider Camas community on Livingston Mountain, areas I would soon see denoted as “12, 13, & 14” on the overlay map. Thanks to Google Earth, the squares under discussion, even in the hearing room, visually showed themselves in the truth of what they were: jewels of lush, forested and green wilderness that makes Clark County a treasure to those who are fortunate enough to live or vacation here.

I came just to open with a prayer, but I stayed the full four hours of the meeting. And what I heard then moved me to go back there again, today.

During both hearings I heard the distress and testimony first hand from families who had been asked to tell their stories over and over again, of bedrock-shattering dynamite blasts and their result: moving earth cracking foundations and compromising wells and water ways, water quality and wildlife. Over and over again came the stories of peril on the narrow hairpin roads and near misses from pedestrians and drivers alike, one of whom testified with both words and bruises. Today we heard the testimony of

Mike Nerland, Superintendent of Camas Schools, whose stated concern for the safety of Camas school students and staff were well illustrated by a young man from Camas High School who spoke of the time the school bus he was riding in was forced off the road from the fast moving, oncoming, fully loaded gravel truck-the truck cleared the bus by only inches.

As I listened, I did so both as a pastor and a local historian. As a pastor, I could hear the distress of the families and wished on occasion that the tone could be less rancorous-a problem that escalated during the first hearing but was much improved at the second. As a historian, I recognized the legacy that for the Commissioners, they were getting a fast introduction of changes in the county they had perhaps not realized. There has been a historic disconnect between what is called “Clark County” and what is called “East County.” Of course, we are all one county. But our economic history has long situated governance in Vancouver. With the arrival of the first train bridge-into Vancouver-followed by the first highway bridge-Interstate 5-‘east county’ fell into small town sleepiness while Vancouver was home to the Courthouse, the “First Church,” and the economic center of Clark County.

Things have changed. I think that a proposed mining overlay that ever included “Area 12, 13, and 14” brought that fully into view. While we in ‘East County’ have seen radical growth all around us, those who go to work every day in the County Planning Offices in Vancouver may not have realized just how big those changes were. I believe it was an honest shock to the County Commissioners just how populated Livingston Mountain had become. I myself live in the shadow of the mountain, and it was even a surprise to me. We are not the sleepy side of the county anymore. We are a magnet for high tech and professional entrepreneurs and corporate enterprises that value a professional workforce, and high standard of living-a standard that honors the natural beauty of the earth rather than seeking to extract it.

The Commissioners voted today to approve the recommendation of the Planning Commission, which means there will be no expansion of mining or mineral-designated land on Livingston Mountain nor in some other key communities in Clark County. Mining is simply an “Incompatible land use” in those areas as they are places that hundreds of families call home.

I had one final thought today. The people left smiling and relieved-and there was a standing ovation following the vote-but there was not the celebration I expected. I realized in looking at so many set faces that they are not done yet. This was a big victory, but there is still mining ongoing on the mountain. The stories of dynamite blasts and terror on the roads were all stories about what is already going on-right now. The fight to still the dynamite and slow the trucks is not resolved. Based on the testimony I heard today, as a citizen and Camas resident, it seems to me that even the existing mine needs to go.

The Rev. Richenda Fairhurst is a Camas resident, and pastor at Camas United Methodist Church.