Restoring Celilo Falls

Celilo Falls has always been phantom of history to me, since I born a few years after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers buried the falls behind The Dalles Dam in 1957. My understanding of the falls and the loss it now represents has come from old photos and maps, and a few shaky film images.

The railroad bridge in the background of this iconic view is the key to locating the falls today

The railroad bridge in the background of this iconic view is the key to locating the falls today

Yet for many, the falls and the native culture surrounding them are alive and vibrant in their memories, thanks to seeing and experiencing them first-hand. For Native Americans, the vivid memories only add to the pain of losing a place that quite literally defined a people for millennia.

The idea of restoring the falls — even temporarily — has been suggested over the years, usually to be slapped down quickly by the Corps of Engineers as unfeasible, or even dangerous. In the late 1980s, a brief, 30th anniversary movement to temporarily draw down the pool behind the dam briefly gained local momentum before the federal agencies killed any talk of the idea. The Corps likely realized that revealing the falls to the public even once could make it politically impossible to ever refill the dam again.

This 1940s aerial view shows the falls and railroad bridge, looking south

This 1940s aerial view shows the falls and railroad bridge, looking south

The hostility of the federal agencies toward even acknowledging the falls fanned the rumors among the local tribes that the falls had, in fact, been purposely destroyed by the Corps of Engineers just before they were inundated. This rumor persisted until last year, when a new mindset among Corps managers spurred the agency to compile a comprehensive sonar map of the falls to show that they are quite intact, beneath the still surface of the reservoir.

The sonar confirmation of the intact falls has breathed new life into the hopes of many that the falls will not just someday be restored, but perhaps someday soon. This is where the restoration of Celilo Falls fits within the scope of the MHNP Campaign: the emerging environmental theme in the coming century is restoration, and no place in the Pacific Northwest is more deserving — perhaps even the nation, considering that 11,000 years of Native American culture at Celilo makes it the oldest continuously settled place in North America.

This map clip correlates today's landmarks to the aerial view of the falls, above

This map clip correlates today's landmarks to the aerial view of the falls, above

But the connection to Mount Hood is even more elemental: the mountain towers over the Celilo country like a beacon, and has been a similarly important feature in the culture of Lower Columbia tribes. Celilo and WyEast are connected, and so their restoration should be. A joined effort to heal these places expands the possibilities for both.

What will a restored Celilo Falls look like? Initially, it will likely be mineral-stained and muddy. But the new sonar maps confirm that silts have not overtaken the falls, so if the pool behind The Dalles Dam were simply lowered today, we would see a largely intact falls — perhaps even with traces of the cantilevered dip net fishing structures that once clung to the rocks around the falls. And over time, the falls would quickly recover to blend again with the surrounding landscape.

R. Swain Gifford's 1875 etching of Mount Hood towering over the Celilo Narrows is among the earliest geographically accurate renderings of the area

R. Swain Gifford's 1875 etching of Mount Hood towering over the Celilo Narrows is among the earliest geographically accurate renderings of the area

What would a restored Celilo Falls mean for the mid-Columbia economy? The immediate impact would be on power supplies, and it is unlikely that the falls could ever be restored without some alternate energy supply — perhaps a wind farm of equal wattage? — ensuring that no net loss in energy production would result.

The next big question would be impacts on shipping, but the good news here is that barges were already using the Celilo Canal to bypass the falls long before the dam was erected. The canal system would conceivably resume this function, if the falls were reborn, albeit with likely improvements and modernization.

These scene was photographed in the mid-1950s, just before the falls was inundated

These scene was photographed in the mid-1950s, just before the falls was inundated

What kind of protection should the restored Celilo Falls receive? That part is easy. The astonishing scope of history tied to the falls easily qualify the site for World Heritage status within the U.S. National Park System, perhaps as a National Historic Site. This would put the restored falls in a category with places like Mesa Verde, in Colorado, and provide the needed framework to preserve and understand the historic resources that lie beneath today’s reservoir.

Restoration of Celilo Falls is a long-term dream of so many, but movement in that direction really began as soon as the falls disappeared in 1957. The falls has never left our collective consciousness, and thus demands restoration.

Another small step toward restoration will occur in 2009, when the commemorative Confluence Project will bring an art installation to Celilo. The project is marking the two centuries since Lewis and Clark passed through the region, and the millennia of human history that makes Celilo unique. A small step, but also a bit more progress toward what I believe will be the inevitable restoration of Celilo Falls — under the gaze of a restored Mount Hood.

Transmission Corridor Redux

The current controversy over the proposed Palomar utility corridor (that would slice across the Clackamas River country, south of Mount Hood) is an uncanny reminder of the 1950s disaster that brought the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) transmission lines to Lolo Pass, north of Mount Hood. In both cases, the result is a permanent, linear clearcut running up and down mountainsides, with almost no regard for visual or environmental impact.

The disastrous BPA transmission corridor over Lolo Pass set a new low for siting transmission corridors

The disastrous BPA transmission corridor over Lolo Pass set a new low for siting transmission corridors

The BPA lines came with the completion of the John Day and The Dalles dams, along the lower Columbia River. As if drowning the incomparable Celilo Falls weren’t enough, the transmission lines crested the Cascades at Lolo Pass, at the time one of the more remote and spectacular corners of the Mount Hood backcountry.

In the 1950s, American society was still in the early years of sprawling hydroelectric projects and rows of transmission towers marching toward the horizon. At the time, these images equaled progress, and nothing more.

the BPA corridor saws across the shoulder of Sugarloaf Mountain in this view

Transmission corridors are straight, but nature is not: the BPA corridor saws across the shoulder of Sugarloaf Mountain in this view

But the BPA lines over Lolo Pass marked a particularly senseless disregard for the landscape, needlessly ruining mountain valleys, blocking Mount Hood vistas, and creating a permanent nuisance with the permanent clearcut that is maintained along the corridor.

The transmission lines also brought a new road to Lolo Pass, along with a devastating logging program that nearly cleared the Clear Fork and Elk Creek valleys, along the corridor. The permanent clear cut below the transmission lines was maintained for decades with chemical herbicides, though the BPA has more recently bowed to pressure to maintain their swath of destruction with mechanical methods.

Over the years, the lines have multiplied, and today, the Lolo Pass swath encompasses four large transmission lines in a quarter-mile wide swath. The maze of “closed” dirt maintenance roads below the lines are a perennial draw for target shooters, off-highway vehicles and illegal dumpers. These activities, in turn, have helped turn the linear clear cut into a conduit of invasive species, brining Scotch broom and Himalayan blackberry deep into the Cascades.

The Lolo transmission corridor began on the scale of the Palomar proposal, but has grown over time

The Lolo transmission corridor began on the scale of the Palomar proposal, but has grown over time

The lessons from the Lolo Pass disaster are many, but above all, we’ve learned that a single utility corridor will almost surely grow over time, as utility planners make the case that future lines ought to follow these existing paths of least resistance.

We’ve also learned that the visual and environmental blight that the corridors create is insidious, causing forest managers to discount the value of adjacent, intact forests as somehow tainted — as less worthy of protection or even recreation use. This will surely be the case if the Palomar corridor is approved.

But the story of Lolo Pass is not complete, and the final chapter has yet to be written. Why? Because after just 50 years, the BPA lines are already approaching their design life, and will eventually need to be replaced.

Mount Hood towering above Lolo Pass

Mount Hood towering above Lolo Pass

Under the logic that led to the expansion of this corridor to encompass four parallel transmission lines, it would be easy to assume that the towers and lines will simply be replaced in place, within the existing corridor.

But it will be equally possible to imagine something better for Lolo Pass — relocating the corridor and restoring the pass, and perhaps finding a better, more efficient, less destructive way to transport our energy.

That’s the dream and vision for many who hold the former beauty of Lolo Pass in their memories, and can imaging restoring this corner of the mountain to its fomer splendor. But it’s also a reminder not to repeat the Lolo Pass mistake at Palomar, setting yet another legacy of perpetual, linear destruction in motion.