The 1,249 mile-long Columbia River is the second largest river in the United States and has been the most heavily used area of Oregon for more than 10,000 years. According to Wikipedia, it is the only river between southern British Columbia and northern California that connects the eastside watersheds of the Cascade Mountain Range to the Pacific Ocean. The Gorge section formed when the river eroded the rising Cascade Mountain Range between 2 and 17 million years ago. Although the river slowly eroded the land, the most drastic changes took place at the end of the last Ice Age, some 13,000 to 15,000 years ago. The cataclysmic Missoula Floods periodically swept across eastern Washington and down the Columbia River Gorge. These floods, with water levels as high as Crown Point, cut the steep, dramatic walls that exist today and left many layers of volcanic rock exposed.
This near sea-level passage through the Cascades creates one of the planet’s sharpest climatological divides, where precipitation varies from 75 to 15 inches per year over a distance of fewer than 30 miles. The unique climate and geography have produced a diverse community of plants and animals, some found only in the Gorge. Nearly 70 percent of the area’s wetlands have been lost over the last 150 years, including more than 114,000 acres of habitat for birds, fish, and other species. Still, the Gorge is home to more than 800 species of wildflowers, (15 of which are not found anywhere else in the world), 44 species of fish, and 200 types of birds.
Fishing Platforms and Barge on the Columbia © Captain Tom Cramblett
For thousands of years, Native peoples along the river shared in its bounty, but after the Europeans arrived in the 1800s, the river was subject to a hundred years of industrialization and exploitation. It started with the fur trade, which was dominated by the Hudson’s Bay Company. Their mission was to eradicate the fur-bearing animals of the region. The company mounted a strategy of ecological disruption to create an area so devoid of furs that Americans crossing the Rockies would become discouraged and turn back. They largely succeeded in their objective.
Successive waves of migrants seeking gold, salmon, timber, and farmlands soon followed the trappers. The quest for profit suddenly replaced respect for, and sharing of, natural resources. Native peoples were defenseless against the newcomers’ technology, disease, and disregard for the Native way of life. Though historically outnumbered and disregarded, Native peoples won a small victory in 1974. It was then that U.S. District Court Judge George H. Boldt issued a ruling that allocated 50% of the annual salmon catch to treaty tribes. The U. S. Supreme Court upheld the verdict on July 2, 1979.
Mama Bringing Home Breakfast © Steider Studios
The destruction of a wonder of nature can be swift and irreversible. In addition to dams blocking the way for migrating salmon to return upstream to their spawning grounds, the fish were scooped from the river by huge commercial cannery wheels during the 19th and 20th centuries. Fishing wheels were outlawed in 1930, around the same time that fish ladders were added to the dams. But it was too late to avoid permanent impact. Historical errors, destruction of habitat, overuse, disease, lack of regulation, and other factors all contribute to the salmon population decline. The number of salmon returning to the river from the ocean has shrunk from an estimated 10 to 16 million fish a year in the early 1800s to around 800,000 (actual count at Bonneville Dam in 2018). Though conservation efforts have succeeded in preventing the salmon from going extinct, some runs such as the “June Hogs” are gone forever.
Today, the Columbia River serves many diverse users. Balancing the needs of Native tradition, human recreation, commercial transport, fishing, irrigation, hydro-electric power, environment, and the myriad of other demands is complicated.
Those who live along the river may have a strong feeling of ownership, but the river does not belong to any single group. The 80-mile stretch of the mid-Columbia River known as, “The Gorge,” is a unique natural wonder. It deserves special care, but special care and conservation are often set aside as many competing interests vie for the use of the river.
The once wild Columbia is now a series of pools behind dams bounded by highway and rail transport lanes. Dams control flooding, provide water for irrigation, and produce power, but interfere with habitat. Coal and oil trains move the raw materials for ever-growing energy demands but pose a constant threat of spillage and environmental damage.
Historically, the two top priorities for managing the Columbia River system have been electric generation and flood control. Other uses, such as irrigation, navigation, and recreation, are primarily carried out within the context of meeting these needs. Because of impacts on salmon, the National Marine Fisheries Services now states that anadromous fish well as its commercial importance, we must learn to share. We must balance ALL of our needs and desires within the framework of the river’s natural system. Only then can we truly honor the River and all the living creatures that depend on it.recovery should receive priority over all river uses except flood control.
Faced with climate change, population growth, pollution, and the increased demand for water, managing the Columbia River is destined to become even more challenging. If we value the natural splendor and cultural significance of the river, as well as its commercial importance, we must learn to share. We must balance ALL of our needs and desires within the framework of the river’s natural system. Only then can we truly honor the River and all the living creatures that depend on it.
Native Fishing Platforms at The Dalles Dam © Don Barrett - Flickr