In the Realm of St. Peter

St. Peters Dome rising above the January 13 Bucher Creek debris flow that swept across I-84, killing one person (ODOT)

It seems a world away as we enter yet another summer drought, with record-breaking heat waves and an early wildfire season in WyEast country. Yet, just a few months ago, on January 13th, the tragic story of a Warrendale Resident being swept away in her car by a winter debris flow in the Columbia Gorge filled our local news. The event closed a 10-mile section of I-84 from Ainsworth State Park to Tanner Creek and the area was evacuated after the National Weather Service issued a flash flood warning. 

Some of the local media coverage also connected the dots, reporting on the long history of dangerous debris flows in this part of the Gorge. This was not a freak tragedy, but rather, a completely predictable event. The well-known hazard zone stretches from Ainsworth State Park on the west to Yeon State Park, five miles to the east, encompassing the hamlets of Dodson and Warrendale in its path. While the steep walls throughout the Gorge are infamous for producing rockfall and landslides, this stretch is notoriously active. Why?

Slip-sliding away…

Geoscientists don’t have a particular name for this geologically active area, but the unifying feature is a near-vertical wall that I will call the Nesmith Escarpment for the purpose of this article. The name that comes from Nesmith Point, which has the distinction of being the tallest feature on the Gorge rim, rising nearly 4,000 feet from the banks of Columbia River. The Nesmith Escarpment was largely created by the ancient, catastrophic Missoula Floods that shaped much of what we know as the Columbia River Gorge during the last ice, more than 13,000 years ago. These floods repeatedly scoured the Gorge with torrents hundreds of feet deep, often enough to overtop today’s Crown Point and Rowena Plateau.

Tumalt Creek is the largest of the volatile streams that flow from the towering, over-steepened Gorge walls of the Nesmith Escarpment(ODOT)

As the massive Missoula Floods cut into the slopes below Nesmith Point, the over-steepened terrain began to collapse into the river. It’s a process that continues to this day, gradually expanding the escarpment and leaving behind sheer basalt towers of resistant bedrock along the lower slopes. Of these, St. Peters Dome is the most prominent, along with Rock of Ages and Katanai Rock (the informal name for the impressive monolith that rises just east of St. Peters Dome).

The headwaters of Tumalt Creek flow from the highest walls of the Nesmith Escarpment, where the red, volcanic layers of the Nesmith Volcano that rests on the Gorge rim have been exposed by erosion  (ODOT)

Adding to the geologic uniqueness of the Nesmith Escarpment is Nesmith Point, itself. Located at the top of the escarpment, the familiar layer-cake stack of basalt flows that make up so much of the Gorge geology gives way at Nesmith Point to bright red and yellow layers of clay and cinders that reveal the uppermost part of the escarpment to be the remains of a volcano. The northern half of the volcano has been torn away over the millennia by the growing escarpment, leaving a visible cross-section of the volcanic dome. The surviving, southern half of the Nesmith volcano is gently sloping, like other dome volcanoes that line the Oregon side of the Gorge (the familiar peaks of Larch Mountain and Mount Defiance among them).

[Click here for a large version of the schematic]

The result of all this erosion is a 3-mile-long amphitheater of collapsing layers of volcanic debris and basalt walls resting uncomfortably and over-steepened upon ancient sediments at the base of the cliffs that make for a slippery, unstable foundation. Rain, winter freezes and gravity will therefore continue to chip away at the escarpment for millennia.

Over the many centuries since the Missoula Floods, this relentless erosion has built a huge apron of what geoscientists call an “alluvial fan” at the base of the Nesmith Escarpment. This name describes the flood debris that accumulates where canyon streams prone to flash-flooding suddenly reach a valley floor, slowing and depositing debris over time. The resulting layers typically form a broad, gently sloped wedge shaped like a fan. For the purpose of this article, the fan at the base of the Nesmith Escarpment will be referred to as the Nesmith Fan

(Source: State of Wyoming)

(Source: City of Scottsdale)

One of the defining features of an alluvial fan is the erratic, constantly shifting course of the streams that create them. Because of their shallow slope and the accumulation of debris, these streams continually change course as they spread their loads of rock and gravel on the fan.

If the Nesmith Escarpment and debris fan were located in a desert environment, these defining features would be exposed and easy to see. But in the forested western Gorge, the dense rainforest vegetation quickly covers debris flows with new growth, often within five or ten years, making it hard to recognize how active the geology really is. It’s therefore easy to understand why settlements like Dodson and Warrendale were built upon on the Nesmith Fan, where the fertile ground and gentle terrain were friendly to farming and home sites. The spectacular cliffs of the Nesmith Escarpment simply provided a beautiful backdrop for these communities. Yet, it’s also an increasingly hazardous place for anyone to live.

The image below shows the Nesmith Escarpment and debris fan in a way that wasn’t possible until LIDAR technology was developed. LIDAR allows highly detailed images of topography even in areas like the Gorge, where dense forests cover the terrain. The LIDAR view shows the steep walls of the escarpment in stark relief, including the hundreds of steep ravines that have formed along the escarpment.

Lidar view of the Nesmith Escarpment and debris fan

The LIDAR view also reveals the alluvial deposits that make up the Nesmith Fan to be a series of hundreds (or even thousands) of overlapping debris flows from the roughly dozen streams that flow from the Nesmith Escarpment, each helping to gradually build the enormous alluvial fan. The wrinkled surface of the fan reveals the hundreds of flood channels that have developed over the millennia as countless debris flows have swept down from the cliffs above.

This view (looking east toward Dodson from Ainsworth State Park) shows the vulnerability of I-84 and the Union Pacific Railroad where they cross the 3-mile-wide expanse of the Nesmith Fan. The 2021 debris flows and flooding damage to the Ainsworth interchange can be seen at the center of the photo, where the interstate was temporary closed by the event (ODOT)

[Click here for a large version of this image]

During the very wet winter of 1996, a series of major debris flow roared down from the Nesmith Escarpment, sweeping cars off I-84 and closing the freeway for several days. A train on the Union Pacific line was knocked off its tracks and many home were damaged.

During the event, debris from Leavens Creek, near St. Peters Dome, swept toward the Dodson area, eventually engulfing the Royse house, which was located near the Ainsworth interchange. The scene was shocking, burying the home in debris that rose to the second floor and destroying outbuildings on the Royse farm. You can read Carol Royse’s riveting account of the event on Portland State researcher Kenneth Cruikshank’s excellent web page describing the 1996 debris flows here.

The Royse House in Dodson (with St. Peters Dome beyond) after a series of debris flows on Leavens Creek engulfed the structure in 1996 (The Oregonian)

The Royse home stood half-buried and visible from the freeway for many years, becoming a prominent reminder of the power of the Gorge. By the mid-2000s, a new forest of Red alder and Cottonwood had already enveloped the debris path and the Royse home, eventually obscuring it from view until the Eagle Creek Fire destroyed both the structure and newly established forest in 2017. 

The more recent debris flows in January of this year struck some of the same spots that were impacted in the 1996 and 2001 events. The Tumalt Creek drainage was once again very active, sending debris onto I-84 and closing the freeway. To the west, the Leavens and Bucher creek drainages also sent debris onto the highway and the site of the former Royse home.

As jarring as these changes are to us, this cycle of destruction, rebirth and more destruction has unfolded hundreds of times on the Nesmith Fan. It’s simply part of the ongoing evolution of the landscape.

How do they start?

Debris flows are a mud and rock version of an snow avalanche. They typically begin with oversaturated soils on steep terrain that suddenly liquifies from its own weight. Once it begins to move, the flow can incorporate still more oversaturated soil as it gathers speed, just as a snow avalanche triggers downslope snow to move. The steepness of the terrain is a key factor in how fast a debris flow can move, and on very steep slopes they can reach as much as 100 miles per hour, though they typically slow as the debris reaches the base of the slope and spreads out to form alluvial fans.

These towering twin cascades where Bucher Creek originates along the Nesmith Escarpment rival Multnomah Falls in height. The impossibly steep terrain here is the source of both the debris and sudden flash floods that have helped build the Nesmith Fan, far below (ODOT)

A heavy rain event can also trigger a debris flow by creating stream flooding that erodes and undermines stream banks, causing debris to slide from canyon walls. This form of debris flow is common in the larger canyons in the Columbia Gorge, but less so on the Nesmith Escarpment, where most of the streams are small and only flow seasonally. Here, it’s the steepness of the slopes and the unstable geology that makes the area so prone to debris flows.

Debris flows are different from landslides. A debris flow is typically quite liquid and fast moving, like cake batter being poured into pan. Landslides are typically slow, with a large mass sliding as a whole, like an omelet sliding from a skillet onto a plate. In the Gorge, landslides are common and mostly occur where the underlying geology is oversaturated and allows the overlying terrain to move. The upper walls of the Nesmith Escarpment are scared by hundreds of landslides, and in the right conditions, these slide can trigger debris flows that spread far beyond the landslide.

What about fires and logging?

A third trigger for debris flows is the sudden removal of the forest overstory. The big trees in our Pacific Northwest forests capture and hold a tremendous amount of rain on their surfaces that never reaches the ground, with some of the moisture directly absorbed by the trees and much of it simply evaporating. Clear cut logging removes this buffer, allowing much more precipitation to suddenly reach the soil, triggering erosion, landslides and debris flows. 

Logging roads are especially impactful by cutting into the soil profile on steep slopes and allowing runoff to infiltrate under the soil layer and destabilized soils. This is well-documented as a source of major landslides in heavily logged areas. Thankfully, most of the forested western end of the Gorge is protected from logging, including the Nesmith Escarpment (though early white settlers logged these areas of the Gorge extensively)

The 2017 Eagle Creek Fire has not only destabilized steep slopes throughout the burn by killing the protective forest cover, it also revealed the tortured landscape of braided flood channels on the Nesmith Fan once hidden under dense vegetation. This image from just after the fire shows a volunteer trail crew scouting Trail 400 where it crosses the fan. The route curves in and out of the dozens of channels and debris piles formed by past flood events

Fire can have a similar effect on runoff when the forest canopy is completely killed. This is why new research shows that attempting to log recently burned areas can have serious effects by disturbing newly exposed soils and worsening the increased erosion that would already result from fires.

In the Gorge, the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire burned most of the Nesmith Escarpment, raising serious concerns about the debris flow activity accelerating here in the coming decades. The debris flows earlier this year may have been the first major events to have been triggered as much by deforestation from the fire as by oversaturated soils. The following photo pair shows the extent of the burn on the Nesmith Escarpment, with the first photo taken just a few weeks before the fire in 2017 and the second photo taken in 2018, when the fire’s impact was clearly visible.

The January 2021 debris flow

The Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) has been making regular flights over the Eagle Creek Fire burn since late 2017 to monitor for potential flooding and landslides. While the main purpose of these surveys is to anticipate impacts on the highway, ODOT is also amassing an invaluable library of historic photos that document the fire and resulting geologic events in a way that has never been done before.

Their most recent flight includes photos from the January 2021 debris flows that tell the story in a way that words cannot match:

This view looking west toward the Ainsworth Interchange shows how Bucher Creek had completely covered the south half of the interchange and sent mud and debris flowing east on the freeway, itself. The 1996 and 2001 debris flows impacted much of the same area (ODOT)

A closer look at the 2021 debris flows where the Ainsworth interchange was overwhelmed with debris. A green highway sign marks what used to be a freeway on-ramp (ODOT)

Bucher creek briefly pushed the lobe of mud and debris in the lower right of this view directly toward the home in the first photo, before changing direction to the path the creek is following in this photo. This is a good example of how accumulated debris regularly forces the streams that carry the debris into new channels. (ODOT)

This view looking back at the Bucher Creek debris flow lobe shows just how close it came to the home and outbuildings shown in the previous photo (ODOT)

The view down Bucher Creek debris flow toward St. Peters Dome and the Columbia River from near the crest of the Nesmith Escarpment (ODOT)

Landslide in burned timber near the crest of the Nesmith Escarpment. This landslide fed debris directly into the Bucher Creek debris flow, and onto the freeway more than 3,500 feet below (ODOT)

What to do?

It’s tempting to wish away future geologic hazards by taking comfort from what we perceive to be more predictable past. After all, the modern Gorge we know has been evolving for more than 13,000 years, and long periods of slope stabilization have marked recent centuries. But can we count on periods of stability in a future that will be shaped by global climate change? 

Almost surely not. All indications are for more volatility in both weather and flood events like those that have built the Nesmith Fan. Recent evidence increasingly supports the reality that our landscapes are changing along with the climate. In a 2016 report on landslide risks by Multnomah County, the number of events escalated over the past 25 years, including at the Nesmith Escarpment (see table, below).

The best path for adapting to this reality and becoming more resilient in response to future events is to accept the ongoing risk from the Nesmith Escarpment. In the near-term, this means regularly repairing I-84 and the parallel Union Pacific railroad after flood events that will become increasingly common and disruptive. It also means installing early warning systems along these routes for the traveling public and commers, as well as the residents of the area who live in harm’s way. 

The 2021 debris flow along Tumalt Creek during this year’s series of flood events on the Nesmith Fan was a textbook example of why adapting in the near-term to protect existing infrastructure is a tall order. The following images show just how unpredictable and unmanageable this steam has become for ODOT.

Once Tumalt Creek reaches the foot of the Nesmith Escarpment and begins to flow across the fan, its course continually shifts and changes, making it very difficult to predict where each debris flow event might be headed (ODOT)

A single culvert (above) carries Tumalt Creek under the freeway and frontage road, but the Nesmith Fan is a maze of shifting streambeds by definition, making it nearly impossible to force streams to obey culvert locations (ODOT)

The channel carrying the debris flow on Tumalt Creek that overwhelmed the frontage road and I-84 in February later dried up, with the creek shifting to another channel after the flood (ODOT)

This screen was installed at another culvert that Tumalt Creek has swept through in past debris flow eventsl. While this device might keep small debris flows from overwhelming the culvert, it has no chance against the increasingly large debris flows that we can expect on the Nesmith Fan (ODOT)

This is the view from the frontage road looking upstream at the large, main culvert intended for Tumalt Creek – though it had shifted out of the channel when this photo was taken a few months after the February event. The flatness of the terrain on the Nesmith Fan is evident here, with no obvious stream chanel except for the grading and contouring by highway crews (ODOT)

Adapting to a new reality

In the long term, coping with debris flows also means facing some tough questions for those who live on the Nesmith Fan. For some, it’s a place where families have settled for generations. For others, it’s a dream home they’ve put their life savings into on the Columbia River in the heart of the Gorge. But for anyone who lives here, the risks are real and growing – as the death of a local resident in this year’s debris flows reminds us.

Across the country, climate change and rising sea levels are impacting millions of homes and businesses built in floodplains formerly classified as “100-year”, but now seeing regular flooding. In the past, the U.S. Government has provided public flood insurance for those living or operating a business in a flood zone, but the increasing frequency of catastrophic events in flood and hurricane-prone regions like the Mississippi Valley, Texas, Florida and Carolina coasts is pushing federal flood insurance premiums sharply up. This does not bode well for those living and working in hazard zones in the Pacific Northwest, including the rural communities scattered across the Nesmith Fan.

Notices like this will become a way of life for Nesmith Fan residents in coming years

In some places along the Mississippi Valley, the federal government has begun simply relocating homes, and even whole towns, rather than rebuilding them in harm’s way. Could this be a model for the Nesmith Fan? Possibly, though most of the private homes in the path of debris flows are not in the flood plain, and may not be eligible for any form of subsidized federal insurance or assistance, short of a disaster.

A more direct approach that could be taken at the state level is a simple buy-out, over time. Where flood-prone areas in other parts of the country might simply have value as farm or grazing land, the Gorge is a world class scenic area, and both public land agencies and non-profits are actively acquiring land for conservation and public use. As Gorge locations go, it’s hard to find a spot as spectacular as the Nesmith Fan and the escarpment that rises above it.

Already, the Forest Service and Oregon State Parks have acquired land on the Nesmith Fan for recreation and to provide habitat under the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area provisions, including at least two parcels with coveted river access. Permanent funding of the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund last year should also help jump-start public acquisitions in the Gorge that have stalled in recent years, and could help spur land owners considering their options.

Katanai Rock (left) and St. Peters Dome (right) rise above orchards at Dodson in this 1940s view from the old Columbia River Highway

Recent events are surely changing the dynamic for landowners in the Gorge, as well. Would some residents living on the Nesmith Fan be more open to a buy-out after witnessing the devastation of last year’s debris flows, knowing that more are likely to come in the wake of the Eagle Creek Fire? Probably. Others – especially the string of luxury homes along the Columbia River – might be more motivated by legacy, and for these folks, non-profit conservation trusts and easements could be a tool for transitioning private land into public ownership over time.

In the meantime, expect more flooding, debris flows and periodic closures of I-84 during the rainy months. And probably more fires in summer, too. This is the new normal in the Realm of St. Peter, after all, and it’s a cycle that will continue for all our lifetimes, and beyond.

Gorge Roundup: The Great, The Sad… and The Ugly

Do you take scenes like this in the eastern Columbia River Gorge for granted? Read on…

As we slowly emerge from a year of pandemic, three milestones in Columbia River Gorge news are noteworthy for those who love WyEast Country. What do they have in comment? In each case, the multi-layered governance (or lack thereof) in the Gorge continues to be a hurdle, even when the news is very good… or even great!

The Great: Mitchell Point Tunnel Project

For many years the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) has been quietly moving toward actually replacing the legendary Mitchell Point “tunnel of many windows” with a new windowed tunnel. The new tunnel is along the bike and pedestrian trail that ODOT has been building to reconnect the original Historic Columbia River Highway, and construction began this spring. It’s a bold and visionary project, and another dramatic nod toward historic restoration along the old route. The former Oregon Highway Division destroyed the original tunnel in the 1966, when it was deemed a hazard to traffic on the modern freeway being constructed directly below, and it has been a dream for many to see it restored ever since.

The new 655-foot tunnel will have five arched windows, roughly patterned after the original Mitchell Point Tunnel. When completed, the tunnel will become the crown jewel of the larger Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail, a concept 35 years in the making, with just five miles of trail remaining to be constructed. When the last five miles are complete, the trail is destined to become a world-class cycling destination that will allow visitors to ride from Troutdale to The Dalles without traveling along the modern freeway.

The iconic Mitchell Point Tunnel was completed in 1915, but it was destroyed by freeway construction just 51 years later in 1966. It lives on in our collective memory as the greatest engineering marvel of the original Columbia River Highway

This 1920s view of the original Mitchell Point Tunnel from the Washington side of the Columbia River shows both west viaduct that led to the tunnel and the famous series of windows (on the left). Freeway construction at the base of the cliffs in the 1960s destroyed both the tunnel and viaduct

The new Mitchell Point Tunnel will enter the basalt walls of Mitchell Spur, the smaller, northern offshoot of Mitchell Point, proper, and connect the existing Mitchell Point Wayside on the west side of the spur to a future trail and historic highway alignment east of Mitchell Point. Between the two new tunnel portals, five windows will frame Gorge views and light the way for visitors, providing an experience similar to what early motorists enjoyed from their Model-Ts in the early 1920s.

ODOT has posted a video on YouTube with drone footage and more background on the new tunnel:

While the new tunnel is certain to draw visitors who simply want to walk its length and enjoy the views, it also offers a terrific opportunity to create loop hikes that build upon the existing Mitchell Point Trail. This steep and difficult to maintain route is more like a goat path, but has become an increasingly popular viewpoint trail as placed like Angels Rest become overwhelmingly crowded. The Oregon Department of Parks and Recreation (OPRD) has already adopted a new loop trail concept for the west side of Mitchell Point that also would provide a better graded approach to the summit, and a loop for those willing to return along the existing, very steep route. 

This ODOT rendering shows the planned approach to the west portal of the new Mitchell Point Tunnel from the perspective of the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail, which currently stubs out at these cliffs (ODOT)

This rendering also shows the new west portal that ODOT is constructing for the new Mitchell Point Tunnel. A bump-out viewpoint (on the left) is also included in the design (ODOT)

This concept shows the design for five windows that will be incorporated into the new tunnel at Mitchell Point. ODOT describes the tunnel interior as “modern concrete”, so the exposed rock surface in this rendering and visible in the previous portal rendering may not be part of the final plan (ODOT)

This view shows the existing overlook at the Mitchell Point Wayside, where the paved trail stubs out at berm at the base of Mitchell Spur’s cliffs. The west portal to the new tunnel will enter the cliff visible just beyond the berm, at the right in this photo. The berm will be removed to extend the trail to the new tunnel portal.

The west portal design for the new tunnel preserves this relatively new (2013) overlook at Mitchell Point, already a popular stop for Gorge visitors

The new tunnel also offers a loop trail opportunity from the east side of Mitchell Point, with the tunnel providing a return to the main trailhead. Loop trails are popular with hikers because you get to see more scenery for your effort. But they can also be managed as one-way trails where crowds are a problem, greatly lessening the impact of passing hikers on heavily traveled trails. The OPRD plan for the Gorge also includes a loop trail concept for Angels Rest with this exact purpose in mind. From a hiker’s perspective, one-way loops also mean encountering far fewer people along your hike, so it can greatly improve the outdoor experience.

[Click here for a larger Mitchell Point West map]

[Click here for a larger Mitchell Point East map]

Will Mitchell Point become as crowded as Angels Rest? Maybe someday, though not anytime soon, simply because it’s much farther from Portland. But it will certainly become more popular than it is today, as foot traffic here has steadily grown over the past decade or so. With this in mind, one of the disappointments of the Mitchell Point project is the failure to plan for future crowds, and especially to differentiate between visitor types in the planned parking improvements. In the past, most visitors to Mitchell Point were there to walk to the existing overlook at the wayside, spending just a few minutes there while on their driving tour of the Gorge. Hikers, meanwhile, can spend several hours laboring up the steep path to the summit. 

Currently, both kinds of visitors compete for the same limited number of parking spots at Mitchell Point. As with unmanaged waysides elsewhere in the Gorge (Latourell Falls, Wahkeena Falls, Starvation Creek are just a few examples), hikers are now filling all of the spots at Mitchell Point on weekends, leaving touring families with no place to park. The new ODOT plan will create 18 parking spaces (including one disabled spot) compared to 16 today (including two disabled spaces). The net increase of two parking spaces is a drop in the bucket for this increasingly popular trailhead.

The existing parking area at Mitchell Point is relatively new – completed in early 2013, when this photo was taken. It provides a total of 16 parking spots, including two disabled spots. The construction of the Mitchell Point tunnel includes a complete reconstruction of the existing parking area

There are a couple of solutions that ODOT and OPRD could easily incorporate into the current construction phase without rivisitng the basic parking plan. First, mark a few parking spots for short-term, 30-minute parking for touring motorists to visit the wayside viewpoint and walk the new tunnel. Yes, it would have to be enforced to be effective, but even sporadic enforcement with a healthy fine would send a shockwave through hiking social media sites.

This is an ODOT rendering of the new parking area at Mitchell Point. While it’s surprising to see the fairly new parking lot being reconstructed so soon, the new design does manage to have a smaller paved area while expanding parking spaces (to a total of 18 compared to 16 today) and has a more efficient circulation design. The areas shown with picnic tables were once part of a very large parking area here as recently as 2012, so it’s disappointing that this design doesn’t better accommodate demand by included more spaces in that area (ODOT)

Second, ODOT and OPRD could take formally advantage of the long access drive to the Mitchell Point Wayside to allow for overflow parking. At a meeting of the Historic Columbia River Highway Steering Committee last summer, I asked if overflow shoulder parking would be allowed along the access road, and the ODOT response was a disappointing “no”. 

That’s not only short-sighted, it’s also a state of denial. Already, the nearby Starvation Creek wayside routinely has cars parked along both the access and exits roads, all the way to the freeway, for lack of a trailhead space and an effective parking management plan. As a result, weekend touring motorists hoping to visit the falls or use the restrooms at Starvation Creek have no prayer of finding a spot, as the entire lot is packed with hikers, most of them on hours-long hikes to the summit of Mount Defiance. That gives ODOT and OPRD a black eye, and a similar situation will surely unfold at the new Mitchell Point trailhead if parking isn’t more actively managed.

The Sad: Oneonta Tunnel Restoration

The Oneonta Tunnel in about 1915,, soon after it opened and before this section of the Historic Columbia River Highway was paved

In other tunnel news, ODOT recently (re)completed the restoration of the Oneonta Tunnel, near Multnomah Falls. The agency once again rebuilt the timbered interior of the tunnel, restoring work that was originally done back in the mid-2000 and completely burned in the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire. It’s a beautiful restoration effort, and you should go see it soon, before it is once again destroyed by vandals carving up the restored woodwork. Because that sad fate is all but inevitable.

I wrote about this project recently in A Second Chance and New Vision for Oneonta? While there may be no appetite at ODOT or OPRD to pursue something more whimsical (like the museum proposed in the previous article!), it is frustrating to see the new restoration completed with zero consideration given to protecting the public’s investment from vandals. At the same meeting of the Historic Columbia River Highway Steering Committee last summer, I asked ODOT officials if there was a plan to secure the tunnel with gates of some kind, and the response was “no, because under national scenic area regulations, we can only restore it to its exact condition before the fire.” 

Mobs of young people descended on Oneonta Gorge each summer before the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire closed the area. Many made a point of vandalizing the wood interior of the Oneonta Tunnel while they were there

Still more frustrating is the fact that top officials from the U.S. Forest Service and ODOT who oversee funding for Gorge projects and scenic area regulation were part of this virtual meeting, and sat in silence when I asked whether this was a good use of public resources. Another committee member commented that vandalism in the form of tagging and graffiti has always been a problem in the Gorge. Perhaps, but is the point is that we shouldn’t care? 

Well, I’m still not buying it. If there is one thing that’s certain for large, well-funded agencies like the Forest Service and ODOT, it’s that where there is a will, there is a way. The cost to install gates would have been negligible compared to what ODOT budgets for the Gorge in a given year, and surely would be less costly than another redo in the coming years. In this case, there was simply no agency interest from the Forest Service or ODOT in protecting the newly restored tunnel, and that’s really discouraging.

ODOT completed the second restoration of the Oneonta Tunnel this spring, replacing the wood lining that was burned away in the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire. Despite its recent history of vandalism, the tunnel is now open and completely unprotected, night and day

So, as lovely as the (second) restoration of the Oneonta Tunnel is, it falls under the column of “sad” for its poor stewardship of both the historic resource and the public funds spent to restore it. But who knows, maybe once the tagging starts up and triggers some unwelcome local media coverage, we’ll see some protection installed? A late response would be better than not at all, and I’d sure like to be proven wrong on the fate of the old tunnel.

The Ugly: Columbia Hills Energy Project

These beautiful, mosaic talus slopes along the Columbia Hills are ground zero for a proposed energy project that threatens to change the area forever. A jarring sea of giant wind turbines were installed along the crest of what is a sacred ridge for area tribes over the past 15 years, and now the turbines are the basis for still more energy development in this unprotected part of the Gorge

I will reluctantly end this article with one of the toughest development proposals to emerge in the Gorge in recent years. As ugly as the project is, however, the picture is not entirely bleak. The proposal is formally known as the “Goldendale Energy Project”, taking its name from what used to be the Goldendale Aluminum Plant, located adjacent to the John Day Dam in the eastern Gorge. But the site is miles away from Goldendale, Washington, and more importantly, it’s within the Columbia River Gorge and centered on Columbia Hills, a place sacred to area tribes. So, I’ve called it the Columbia Hills Energy Project for this article.

The aluminum plant at the John Day Dam went out of business decades ago, leaving badly polluted soils and groundwater behind where smelters once stood. It has since been undergoing a gradual cleanup operation, work that is ongoing. The Columbia Hills “stored energy” project proposes to build a large water storage basin in this polluted brownfield, connected by pipes to a second basin at the crest of the Columbia Hills, 2,000 vertical feet directly above the John Day Dam and the old aluminum plant site. When wind turbines are generating excess energy, water from the lower basin would be pumped to the upper basin, and could then be released back down to the lower basin to power hydro turbines during periods of peak demand (or low wind).

The system on the right is proposed for the Columbia Hills (Rye Development)

To the Ka-milt-pah band of the Yakima Nation (known in English as the Rock Creek Band), the Columbia Hills here are sacred. Their significance goes to the very creation of the Columbia Gorge, itself. Scientists believe the ice age Bretz (or Missoula) floods continued to repeatedly overwhelm the Gorge with hundreds of feet of water for nearly 2,000 years, finally ending some 13,000 years ago. Virtually every aspect of the Gorge as we know it was shaped by the floods, including the steep, exposed cliffs and rock monoliths that give the Gorge its iconic beauty. Their oral tradition tells us that the ancestral Ka-milt-pah people climbed to these ridge tops to escape this series of massive ice-age floods, watching the cataclysm from these high vantage points. 

Today, the Ka-milt-pah continue to gather first foods from these same hills, though now with the permission of farmers who own deeds to the ceded tribal lands here. In yet another insult to traditions and the defacement of their sacred places, tribal members now must gather foods under the shadow and hum of giant wind turbines that send “green” electricity to Portlanders. Unseen to urbanites are the miles of gravel access roads that were cut into pristine desert soils along these ridges to build and maintain the turbines, destroying still more of the ecosystem that the Ka-milt-pah people relied upon for millennia. And in yet another cruel irony, the windmills are now are central to the Columbia Hills Energy Project, as well.

The defunct, polluted aluminum plant at John Day dam (seen far below in this view) is proposed to hold the lower reservoir for the closed-loop energy system. This view is from the crest of the Columbia Hills, on sacred tribal land 2,000 feet above the river, where the upper reservoir would be constructed (Portland Business Journal)

The towering wind turbine that now line the Columbia Hills above John Day Dam are aggressively marketed as benign sources of clean energy, and yet each turbine requires a new road to be built, leaving a permanent scar on the land and introducing invasive plants to the largely pristine desert landscape. This snaking section of road in this view is on sacred tribal land near the proposed Columbia Hills Energy Project (Google Earth)

The service roads built for these windmills on the crest of the Columbia Hills resemble suburban cul-de-sacs, each cut into desert ground that had never even been plowed, and has provided tribal first foods for millennia (Google Earth)

Did you know that the stunning stretch of the Columbia River Gorge east of the Deschutes River does not enjoy the protections provided by the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area (CRGNSA) to areas west of the Deschutes? The most jarring evidence of this second-class status are the hundreds of massive, white wind turbines that now dot the Columbia Hills along this unprotected stretch of the Gorge, from Maryhill Museum east to the John Day river and beyond. The visual impact of these turbines therefore wasn’t even a factor when they were constructed over the past 15 years.

It is truly a miracle and testament to the tenacity of Gorge advocates in the 1980s that we even have a CRGNSA to protect the Gorge, yet it’s also true that leaving the eastern portion of the Gorge out of the bill left the area tragically vulnerable to energy and development schemes that continue forever scar the Gorge we shall leave to future generations. The Columbia Hills Energy Project may be the latest scheme, but it certainly won’t be the last (lesser-known fact: the Maryhill Museum was among the opponents of the CRGNSA in the 1980s, which explains the forest of windmills that now mar the Gorge rim directly above the museum and continue for miles to the east).

The ancient and sustainable trumped by the new and industrial: the 1971 John Day Dam dwarfs traditional tribal fishing platforms, located just downstream from the dam

For the Danish corporate investors behind this project, the windmills along the Columbia Hills provide a world-class opportunity for pumped storage development. The hills rise anywhere from 1,200 to 2,000 feet above the Columbia River, a ready source of water to fill storage tanks. That’s probably as much as they know. The fact that it’s also remote from Portland urbanites who might otherwise be shocked to see a development of this scale proposed in “their Gorge” is just good fortune for the investors.

And so, it has fallen to the Confederated Yakima, Umatilla and Nez Perce nations to defend their homelands from yet another assault by Europeans seeking to, once again, commodify their native lands.

Countless generations of tribal fisherman have harvested salmon on these pebble beaches in the east Gorge for millennia. The lower reservoir for the proposed “energy loop” would be a stone’s throw from this iconic scene. Is it even possible to measure economic impacts of energy project against threats to the very culture of indigenous people?

The pace of change in the eastern stretch of the Gorge has been breathtaking in the past few decades. In 1957 – just 64 years ago — the gates on The Dalles Dam closed, drowning Celilo Falls and surrounding tribal settlements under 40 feet of water. This ended a way of life for indigenous peoples who had thrived here for thousands of years. Nine years later, in 1966, ODOT blasted and filled a 4-lane swath through the Gorge to construct today’s Interstate-84, destroying miles of wetlands and beaches along the way, and cutting off access to traditional tribal fishing sites in the process. In 1971, the gates were closed on John Day Dam, at the head of slackwater created by The Dalles Dam. Another stretch of rapids along the once-wild river disappeared, along with more beaches and wetlands. 

The vast, colorful pebble beaches in the east Gorge were left here by ice age floods that brought rock from the northern Rocky Mountains to the Columbia River Gorge. This river-worn piece of petrified wood is typical of these deposits

Both dams brought hundreds of steel transmission towers and thousands of miles of electrical cable that now drapes across the once-pristine Gorge landscape. And in the 2000s, big utilities rushed after state and federal renewable energy tax credits to line the Columbia Hills with hundreds of windmills, many built on sacred tribal sites. It’s true, these are all renewable energy sources that our region depends upon to power our homes and industry. Yet, it’s also true that our cheap energy has come at a catastrophic cost to tribal culture and economies, and wreaked havoc on one of the most spectacular natural landscapes on the planet. Isn’t it time to question just how “green” the energy harnessed in the Gorge really is?

Fortunately, a broad coalition of conservation advocates have joined the tribes in challenging the Columbia Hills Energy Project. They include both the Oregon and Washington chapters of the Sierra Club, the Northwest Environmental Defense Center, Columbia Riverkeeper, Food and Water Watch, Portland Audubon and several other organizations.  This is encouraging, as corporate energy projects are famously costly and drawn-out battles with deep-pocketed (and often foreign) investors who are willing to ride out the opposition and ingratiate themselves to local elected officials. Witness that Washington Governor Jay Inslee recently signed a fast-track provision for energy storage projects just like this one (though we don’t know his position on this specific proposal). 

This lovely desert gulch along the Columbia River is immediately adjacent to the proposed Columbia Hills Energy Project. How will it be impacted? We don’t know yet…

Thankfully, the Washington Department of Ecology has determined the project to have “significant environmental impact”, ensuring that some rigor will be applied in the state permitting review. Whether that review can truly measure the impact of this proposal on tribal rights and traditions remains and open question that courts will likely have to decide.

Yes, stored energy projects are a good idea. They’re a creative, sustainable solution in a world facing a global climate crisis. We should welcome them!

Just not here.