In late January, I posted an article on the proposed Punchbowl Park project at the confluence of the east and west forks of the Hood River. Since then, community activists have worked with Hood River County officials to move the project forward with a remarkable public outreach effort and bold vision for the new park.
Heather Staten, executive director of the Hood River Valley Residents Committee (HRVRC) and the leading force behind the project took a few minutes this week to give an update on the project, and what lies ahead for this exciting proposal.
WyEast Blog: How did the Punchbowl Park project get started, and what is the role of the HRVRC?
Heather Staten: Hood River County and Western Rivers Conservancy, the property’s current owner, had worked unsuccessfully for several years on grants to fund acquisition of the 100-acre property as a County Park. Those efforts had flown under the radar of most local people, even those with close associations to the property. Last summer, David Meriwether, the County Administrator approached me about conducting a robust public process where we would really discover the community’s vision for the property.
My organization, the Hood River Valley Residents Committee (HRVRC), was well-placed to run such a public outreach effort. We’re Oregon’s oldest local land-use advocacy group, with a 38-year history of protecting farms, forests and special natural places. David also knew me from the campaign to reopen Hood River’s libraries when they were closed due to budget cuts. So he knew we had both the local knowledge and organizational capacity to run a really inclusive public process.
WyEast: You’ve made a real effort to involve the broader community in this planning effort. What are some of the most common themes you’re hearing?
Staten: This was a community planning effort. I can’t imagine many planning processes that involved as many people as intensely as this one. Part of it is the nature of the property–it is spectacularly beautiful. People are passionate about it so they have strong opinions. They use it, love it and want to protect it.
One of the things that was interesting to me was how people prioritized protecting the place over whatever they did there. There was real consensus that preserving the natural and ecological features of the place was the most important thing. Whenever there was choice that provided greater convenience for users but at the price of degrading the resource, the public always chose to protect the resource. For instance, they rejected campgrounds and drive up boat ramps.
WyEast: What makes the site special in a way that warrants a public park?
Staten: Everyone falls under the spell of the rugged wild beauty of the site and its unique and stunning combination of basalt columns, fast moving water and rich flora and fauna. It packs a lot of diversity in a relatively small site — two waterfalls, the confluence of two rivers, basalt canyon, conifer forest on the west side of the property and a really lovely Oregon white oak woodland on the east side.
There is the thrilling experience of walking along the ridge of the canyon with the water crashing far below then a very different experience down at the confluence when you stand at water level with rivers on either side of you joining together. The site provides rare and precious access to the river for anglers, kayakers, rafters and swimmers. In 15 miles, there are only a couple of legal public access points to the river.
WyEast: The proposal includes several new trails. Aren’t there already trails on the site? What would the new trails offer and how would they be built?
Staten: Until now the trail system has consisted of an old logging road and a spider web of social trails that people have created all over the ridge above the West Fork. People know about the waterfall, they can hear and see the water so they cut their own paths to get there. There are so many of these social trails that they are causing environmental damage.
The big idea is to build a new trail to go where people want to go. The new trail will run along the ridge and connect the major, stunning views and access points along the west fork offering kind of a curated experience of the river canyon. Also as part of Phase One we’ll build a forest loop through the woods.
We’ve got an even grander plan for Phase Two, a wooden footbridge over the East Fork that would link the east and west sides of the property. It will greatly expand the length of the trail system and offer a greater diversity of experience. The east side of the river is a hidden gem, with an intact Oregon white oak forest, great vistas of the confluence and river access to the main stem Hood River.
The trail building will mostly be a volunteer effort. We were lucky to meet with Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO) several months ago — their advice has been invaluable. Trailkeepers will provide the professional expertise and tools and Hood River will provide the local volunteer muscle. It’s a model that Hood River County has used successfully for all of their mountain bike trails on county forest land.
[click here for a larger view]
WyEast: Punchbowl Falls has been a traditional Native American fishing site, were tribal interests involved in the park planning? If so, what sort of themes did you hear from the tribes?
Staten: The area around Punchbowl Falls, particularly the bowl just below the falls, has been a fishing site for members of the Confederated Tribes of the Warms Springs (CTWS) and their tribal ancestors for centuries. Tribal members attended the public meetings and we consulted with the manager of the CTWS hatchery program in the area.
Tribal members were concerned with interference with their fishing season and with the protection of the riparian corridor for salmon and steelhead habitat. Along with ODFW, the Tribes have been working for the last few years to restore a spring Chinook run to the Hood River. Spring Chinook used to be a very productive fishery on the Hood River but was effectively extinct by the late 1960s, a casualty of dams and detrimental logging practices.
In 2010, the Powerdale Dam was removed from its location downstream from the Punchbowl area, making the Hood River a free-flowing river again. It’s still early, but there are signs that the chinook run is coming back, so tribal members were concerned that any development at the park, like trail building, be done in a way that did not effect water quality.
Along with their treaty fishing rights, the tribes have some exclusive fishing rights at the property: only tribal members are permitted to fish within 200 feet of Punchbowl Falls. Sport anglers must stay downstream of that boundary, just north of where Dead Point Creek falls enters the Hood River.
WyEast: When you visit Punchbowl Falls, it’s hard not to notice the concrete fish ladder that was built in the 1950s, as it’s a bit of an eyesore. What is the long-term plan for the fish ladder?
Staten: Yes, it is an eyesore, but it is used by fish as part of the salmon recovery program. There is not yet a plan for the fish ladder. Investigating whether the fish ladder could be removed was outside the scope of this project but definitely worth further research.
Punchbowl Falls is one of the most photographed locations in Hood River County so we have seen hundreds of old photos of the falls before the fish ladder was constructed in 1959. It does kind of break your heart when you see the basalt columns on the west side of the falls that have been replaced by that concrete.
WyEast: Last week the Hood River County Board of Commissioners endorsed the Punchbowl Park proposal. What are the next steps?
Staten: The Board of Commissioners endorsed the park proposal, committed to a budget to develop the park and authorized the County to apply for grants to fund the park’s acquisition. The Commissioners were supportive, enthusiastic and excited about the opportunity to create this park. The big deadline coming up is April 1, when we need to have our grant application in for the Local Government Grant Program of Oregon Parks and Recreation Department (OPRD).
WyEast: Anything else you’d like to add?
Staten: At the end of our presentation to the Board of Commissioners, the chair asked if anyone in the audience would like to speak. A gentleman stood up and said that whenever he went to a National Park, somewhere in experiencing the park, he felt a moment of gratitude because he realized that 100 years ago someone had the vision and the drive to save it for the public, like John Muir at Yosemite. He said that at Punchbowl, we had the opportunity to be the people that saved it for future generations. This is a park not just for us, but also for our great-great grandchildren.
WyEast: Heather, thanks for taking the time to talk about the project, and for all your work in leading this effort. It’s truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and you’ve really galvanized the community with your vision for protecting this amazing place!
To view a copy of the Punchbowl Park plan, click here to download a PDF version.