Treasured local institution faces a much more complicated balancing act  ne of our area's most vital institutions is facing sudden drastic change as the U.S. Coast Guard is melded into the new Department of Homeland Security. It's important we and our federal legislators closely monitor the change to ensure the Coast Guard receives adequate funding for its duties in the vicinity of the Columbia River.

The Coast Guard is essential to commerce and safety here, in ways that have nothing to do with terrorist threats and everything to do with heavy commercial and recreational boat traffic, navigation challenges and violent weather. We can't afford to take it for granted that heads of the new department will fully appreciate all the Coast Guard does here, particularly when these tasks are weighed against staving off President Bush's Axis of Evil.

It's not beyond the realm of possibility that our area itself or upriver metropolitan zones might be subject to attack. But the more meaningful concern for us is that the Coast Guard could shift resources from this area elsewhere. Or the new department might burden local personnel with additional chores without sufficient funding to continue performing all the things they now do so well.

Under the Department of Transportation, the Coast Guard has often been stretched to capacity in this area during prime fishing times like Buoy 10 and the opening of Dungeness crab season. Tired, over-worked people are always at greater risk themselves, and we can't afford to make things any more difficult for search and rescue personnel who save the lives of others here every year.

t is welcome news that it is set to receive a major infusion of funds for the next several years to upgrade aging boats and other infrastructure. It's sometimes easier, however, to obtain money for tangible items than it is for adequate staffing and pay. Congress loves to pay for new boats that can be built by contractors in their home districts. It's more difficult keeping the congressional eye on the ball when it comes to decent wages and housing for the men and women who drive the boats and maintain the Coast Guard stations.

The Coast Guard does a remarkable job here in the Northwest. We're lucky to have them. But we shouldn't take them for granted or assume that Washington, D.C. is fully aware of how much we need the Coast Guard. We always assumed the National Weather Service appreciated how valuable it was to have a manned station here in this place of chaotic climate, and we know where that assumption got us - recreational boaters floundering around in this summer's sudden fogs are the least of it.

So let's make certain to take care of the Coast Guard at least as well as it takes care of us.

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