Close Call at White River Falls

The magnificent desert falls on the White River survived a close brush with disaster this month, when a throwback proposal by Wasco County to divert the river as part of a new hydropower project was scrapped.

Like so many hydro projects of decades passed, this one would have had “little impact”, according to proponents. Yet, as we take in the summertime view of the 90-foot plunge pictured above, it’s obvious that diverting the river would have an immediate impact on the natural beauty of the area. Would half the falls be diverted? Two-thirds? All of it?

(click here for a PDF of Dalles Chronicle article)

Though the Wasco County proposal was ultimately dropped because of concerns voiced by the Oregon State Parks Commission, it wasn’t for lack of “goodies” offered up in exchange for the diversion. The County promised trail improvements for recreation, and interpretive facilities for the structures left behind from the last hydro project here.

White River Falls with the rocky gulch of Devils Halfacre in the background

The old plant was shut down in 1960, and the land subsequently transferred to the state, first as the “Tygh Valley State Wayside”, then today’s “White River Falls State Park.”

The falls and adjacent White River Gorge are truly a forgotten gem in Oregon, save for a few fishermen in spring and fall, and a lot of teenagers in summer, seeking out the swimming holes below the falls. Yet, the area is only two hours from Portland, and offers some of the most accessible desert scenery in the state.

In recent years, hikers have begun to explore the area, following boot paths and game trails downstream toward the confluence with the Deschutes River, just over two miles below the falls.

White River Gorge from the falls overlook

What most visitors don’t know is that much of the rugged backdrop for the falls is private land. Most surprisingly, these private holdings include the most of the White River gorge, all the way to the Deschutes confluence, and this beautiful area has somehow escaped development over the years.

Concept: White River Gorge Recreation Area

With Wasco County politicians dreaming up hydro projects for the White River, this article is intended as a more forward-looking counterpoint that actually embraces the scenic and recreational values in the area.

As a starting point, the National Recreation Lands boundary that encompasses the larger Deschutes Canyon could be expanded to include White River Falls, White River Gorge and the adjacent Winter Ridge and Devils Halfacre areas. This could provide the direction needed for state and federal land agencies to begin acquiring private land and planning for recreation.

It’s unclear what the “National Recreation Lands” boundary actually means, however. It seems to mirror the Wild and Scenic River designation for the Deschutes Canyon on USGS maps, but may be an orphan from old federal plans and policies no longer in force. Current federal planning documents for the lower Deschutes Canyon are also badly out of date, so a better legal mechanism likely exists for recognizing the potential for recreation in the White River Gorge area. In the end, some sort of designation is needed to identify the extent of the new recreation area.

The following map outlines the concept, with the proposed new White River Gorge recreation area bounded in dashed red, existing White River Falls State park in green and federal land holdings (BLM) in yellow:

(Click here for a much larger, more readable map)

The proposal: a network of new desert trails

The main focus of the concept is to build new trails in the White River Gorge, proper, and on the adjacent highlands that I’ve called Winter Ridge for the purpose of this article. The gorge is mostly private land outside the present state park boundaries, so like all of the trail proposals called for in this article, a new White River Gorge trail implies public ownership or easement.

The dashed red lines on the map show the new trail extending through the canyon from the falls to the confluence with the Deschutes, along with a short viewpoint loop within the current state park boundaries. This would become a premier hiking trail in the region, providing a unique riverside hiking experience in a roadless desert canyon.

The first portion of this new trail would simply follow the existing route down to the old power plant, with a new loop climbing back to the trailhead, via a canyon viewpoint above the falls. This part of the proposal could be built now, as it falls entirely within the current state park boundary.

Remains from the former power station in White River Gorge

The canyon trail would offer a unique interpretive opportunity where relics of the old power plant still exist. The Wasco County hydro proposal recognized the historic importance of these structures, and called for interpretive improvements along this existing trail, at the penstock and in the old power plant. These historic structures have been badly vandalized over time, and could greatly benefit from some modest renovation and protection.

In addition to the White River Gorge trail, the proposal calls for a network of hike and bike trails over the broad slopes of Winter Ridge. This area rises steeply above the confluence of the Deschutes and White rivers, with views nearly 800 feet down into the gorge from the open crest. The west slopes drop gently to the trailhead at White River Falls, with sweeping views of Devils Halfacre, Tygh Ridge, Mount Hood and Mount Jefferson.

The proposed trails shown on Winter Ridge (in green on the map) are almost entirely along existing paths and roads, and would require little beyond signage to improve them for hikers and mountain bikers.

Desert mounds along Winter Ridge (the black dot is a juniper tree, for scale)

Though a portion of Winter Ridge is farmed with winter wheat, much of the terrain is in a native state. The upper slopes of the ridge feature an odd landform unique to the Lower Deschutes River country: countless mounds of soil and rock, often organized in rows. They span 10-20 feet in width, and stand a few feet in height.

These odd “desert mounds” appear on shallow slopes and hilltops throughout the Tygh Ridge area, and this would be one of the few areas where visitors could examine these mysterious formations, up close, and learn some of the many theories about their origin.

Thinking Big: an expansive trail network at Devils Halfacre

It is impossible to stand at White River Falls and not notice the rugged, picturesque rim rock cliffs and massive bluffs that rise to the south of the White River Gorge. This rocky maze is the Devils Halfacre, and though in private holdings now, it offers an especially interesting potential for recreation.

Black basalt cliffs and talus slopes of Tuskan Ridge rise above the White River Gorge

The area falls into two general units: the rocky gulch of Devils Halfacre, proper, and the huge mesa forming the east wall of the gulch, which I’ve called Tuskan Ridge for the purpose of this proposal (see map). A network of trails and dirt tracks already exists here, and could easily be adapted to become an exceptional hike and bike trail network. These trails would lead hikers, bikers or possibly equestrians past rugged rock formations to spectacular, cliff-top viewpoints.

The Devils Halfacre area has excellent potential for trailhead access from both Highway 216 and Oak Springs Road. The terrain here rivals popular destinations in the eastern Columbia River Gorge, and would offer a unique chance to bring sustainable recreation tourism to the local economy.

Looking Forward

The concept presented here is just one way in which recreation and landscape restoration could be combined to preserve the White River Gorge area.

The intense demand for mountain biking opportunities also offers the potential to transform the local economy, especially since the area is just far enough from the Portland metropolitan area to draw overnight and weekend visitors who could support local businesses.

Mount Hood, rising across Tygh Valley from Winter Ridge

At a minimum, now is the time for Wasco County to aim for a more sustainable vision for White River Falls and its surroundings, instead of rehashing old, exploitive ideas that would degrade the area, and that have already failed here, before.

The Oregon State Parks Commission was right to challenge the County’s attempt to turn back the clock at White River Falls. Now would be the perfect time for the County to partner with the Parks Commission and federal agencies to forge a new vision that does justice to the remarkable landscape that exists here.

Return of the Mountain Goat

Rocky Mountain Goats by Albert Bierstadt

Along their return trip across the continent, on April 10, 1806, the Lewis and Clark expedition visited a small Indian village on what is now Bradford Island, in the heart of the Columbia River Gorge. Here, they traded for a beautiful white hide from what we now know as a Rocky Mountain Goat. Meriwether Lewis described it unmistakably in his journal as a “sheep”, white in color with black, pointed horns. The Bradford Island villagers told the expedition the hide had come from goat herds on the high cliffs to the south of what is now Bonneville, on the Oregon side.

Two days later, the expedition encountered another group of Indians, this time near present-day Skamania, on the Washington side of the river. A young Indian woman in the group was dressed in another stunning white hide, and this group also told of “great numbers of these animals” found in “large flocks among the steep rocks” on the Oregon side.

Rocky Mountain Goats by John Woodhouse Audubon

A century later, New York attorney Madison Grant produced the first comprehensive study of the Rocky Mountain Goat for the New York Zoological Society, in 1905. Grant described the historical range of the species extending from British Columbia south along the Cascade Crest to Mount Jefferson. At the time of his research, he reported that mountain goats had “long since vanished from Mt. Hood and from other peaks in the western part of the State, where they once abounded”.

Coincidentally, Grant’s report was published just a few years after the Mazamas mountaineering club formed on the summit of Mount Hood, selecting the Rocky Mountain Goat as their namesake and mascot — apparently, decades after the species had been hunted out in the Mount Hood region.

Early 1900s linen postcard from Glacier National Park

Another century later, on July 27, 2010, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) and Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs made history by releasing 45 Rocky Mountain Goats in the remote backcountry of Whitewater Canyon, on the east slopes of Mount Jefferson, just inside the Warm Springs Reservation.

The Mt. Jefferson release marked a symbolic and spiritual milestone for both conservationists and the Warm Springs Tribe, alike, restoring goats to their native range after nearly two centuries. The release also marked the first step in a major goat reintroduction effort, as envisioned in the landmark 2003 plan developed by ODFW to return goats to their former ranges throughout Oregon.

2010 release near Mt. Jefferson (Photo by Jim Yuskavitch/ODFW)

When the 2003 ODFW plan was developed, about 400 goats were established in the Wallowa and Elkhorn ranges, a few dozen in Hells Canyon, and a few scattered goats had dispersed just beyond these concentrations. The plan calls for moving goats from these established populations to historic ranges in the Oregon Cascades, including in the Columbia River Gorge. The proposed Gorge introduction sites include the rugged Herman Creek headwaters, the open slopes and ridges surrounding Tanner Butte and the sheer gorge face below Nesmith Point. The plan also calls for reintroducing goats at Three Fingered Jack and the Three Sisters in the Central Oregon Cascades.

Members of the Confederated Tribes holding goat kids at 2010 release (Photo by Jim Yuskavitch/ODFW)

The new effort to bring goats back to the Oregon Cascades is not without controversy. Conservation groups have taken the U.S. Forest Service and ODFW to court over lack of adequate environmental review of the plan to bring goats to the Gorge, and the agencies are now completing this work. The legal actions that have slowed the Gorge reintroductions helped move the Warm Springs effort forward, and are likely to move sites near Three Fingered Jack and the Three Sisters ahead of the Gorge, as well.

The 2003 reintroduction plan is also based on selling raffle-based hunting tags that fund the reintroduction program. This strategy is surprising to some, given the small number of animals surviving in Oregon. However, with the raffle for a single tag in 2010 raising nearly $25,000 for the program, it’s clear that selling hunting rights will help guarantee funding the reintroduction effort at a time when state budgets are especially tight.

Mountain Goats on Mount Hood?

The renewed interest in bringing mountain goats back to the Cascades, and the notable omission of Mount Hood from the ODFW plan as a release site, raises an obvious question: why not? The plan doesn’t provide details, but the likely arguments are lack of available habitat and the overwhelming presence of humans on Mount Hood.

The ODFW plan prioritizes sites that can support at least 50 goats, including space for adult males to roam separately from herds of females and juveniles. Without knowing a specific acreage requirement for individual animals, the following comparison of Mount Hood to the Goat Rocks area helps provide perspective — with an estimated 300 mountain goats thriving at Goat Rocks. These images are at identical scale, showing comparative amounts of alpine terrain:

The Goat Rocks (above) clearly has more prime habitat terrain at the margins of timberline, thanks to the maze of ridges that make up the range. But in total alpine area, the Goat Rocks are not much larger than Mount Hood (below), so it appears that Mount Hood has the space and habitat for at least 50 goats.

The human presence at Mount Hood is a more compelling argument against reintroducing goats. The south side of the mountain is busy year-round, thanks to three ski resorts, with lifts reaching high above timberline into what would otherwise be prime goat habitat. Snowshoers and Nordic skiers fill the less developed areas along the loop highway, making the south side one of the busiest winter sports areas in the region.

However, on the east, north and west sides of the mountain, human presence is mostly seasonal, limited to hikers in summer and fall along the Timberline Trail. These faces of the mountain have also been spared from development by the Mount Hood Wilderness, and thus offer long-term protection as relatively undisturbed habitat. This view of the mountain from the north gives a good sense of the many rugged alpine canyons and ridges that are rarely visited, and could offer high-quality goat habitat:

Since we know goats once thrived on Mount Hood, and adequate habitat seems to exist for goats to survive today, the real hurdle might simply be perception — that wildlife managers cannot imagine wild goats coexisting with the human presence that exists on some parts of the mountain. If so, we may miss a valuable opportunity to reintroduce goats where a large number visitors could view and appreciate these animals.

To help remedy this apparent blind spot, the following are a couple of digital renderings of what once was — and perhaps would could be — on Mount Hood. The first view is from Gnarl Ridge, on the east side of the mountain. Here, goats would find plenty of habitat in the high ramparts bordering the Newton Clark Glacier. This area is among the most remote on Mount Hood, so ideal for goats seeking a little privacy from human visitors:

The most obvious Mount Hood habitat is on the north side, on the remote, rocky slopes that border the Eliot, Coe and Ladd glaciers. This part of the mountain is only lightly visited above the Timberline Trail, and rarely visited in winter. It’s easy to picture goats making a home here, on the slopes of Cooper Spur:

(click here for a larger view)

Wildlife managers probably have good reason for skepticism about bringing goats back to Mount Hood. After all, the risks are clearly greater here than at less developed sites.

But let’s reverse these arguments: what if mountain goats were viewed as an end goal in restoring Mount Hood? What if this challenge were reframed as “what would it take for mountain goats to thrive here?” What if successful restoration of Mount Hood’s ecosystems were simply defined by the ability to support an iconic native species like the mountain goat, once again?
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To read an Oregonian article (PDF) on the 2010 Mt. Jefferson goat release, click here.