Condit Dam is gone. The fate of the land around it remains in question

The Lower White Salmon Coalition is pushing a new plan for conservation of fish and wildlife habitat. Will its PacifiCorp landowners listen?

Condit Dam is gone. The fate of the land around it remains in question

Land ho! Removal of the Condit Dam opened sections of the White Salmon River to recreation. But left decisions about surrounding property unresolved Photo: Wet Planet

By Kendra Chamberlain. November 27, 2023. Even before PacifiCorp began removing the 125-foot-tall hydroelectric Condit Dam in southwest Washington in 2011, speculation ran rampant about how the power company would dispose of the approximately 500 acres of land along the White Salmon River where the dam stood.

The dam’s removal left behind a giant, dried lakebed after the waters of the Northwestern Lake reservoir behind it were sent downriver.

Since then, questions and anxiety about the future of the land have only increased. PacifiCorp has yet to announce a decision regarding its intentions.

The lakebed and six-mile stretch of river in question, surrounded by protected Wild and Scenic designated land, has become popular among recreationalists: the newly restored river offers some of the best whitewater paddling in the state, and the area contains an established trail system.

Now, the Lower White Salmon Coalition (LWSC) has released a community-backed Vision Plan for the land. Not surprisingly, conservation is the group’s top priority.

Condit Dam

Gone, not forgotten: Condit Dam created electricity and blocked fish and other passage on the White Salmon River for a century. It was demolished in 2011. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The LWSC was formed in 2016, amid concerns about how and when PacifiCorp might divest its land holdings in the Washington counties of Skamania and Klickitat. Its more than a dozen member organizations include Friends of the Columbia Gorge, Mid-Columbia Fisheries Enhancement Group, Mt. Adams Resource Stewards and Underwood Conservation District.

PacifiCorp had previously offered land leases for the construction of lakefront cabins. After the dam’s decommissioning, the lake is all but gone and cabin owners aren’t sure what PacifiCorp plans to do with the land underneath the cabins.

In 2019, the coalition was caught by surprise when PacifiCorp sold a 39-acre parcel to a developer that clear-cut a wooded area and built residential housing.

“No one knew that parcel existed except them,” LWSC member Pat Arnold told Columbia Insight, adding that the parcel contained high-value habitat. Arnold is also Chair of the Board of the Friends of the White Salmon River.

Lake bed land a priority

The LWSC has spent the intervening years developing its own plan for the land, with the hopes that the group will have a seat at the table of future decision-making.

The planning process included developing committees, conducting public surveys, holding discussions with adjacent landowners and meetings with stakeholders to identify a broad community-backed strategy for the land.

A grant from the U.S. National Park Service’s Rivers, Trails and Conservation Assistance Program helped fund the process.

PacifiCorp has already agreed to a Right of First Offer with the Yakama Nation for up to 289 acres from the former dam site south to the mouth of the river. Yakama Nation Fisheries staff, who have begun habitation restoration in parts of the lake bed, participated as observers in LWSC’s planning process and offered feedback to the coalition.

Lower White Salmon River map

Map: NPS Rails, Trails, Conservation Assistance Program

The LWSC would like to see the return of native riparian vegetation along the river corridor and salmon spawning areas protected. It also wants assurances that public access and recreational use of the area will remain in the future.

Arnold said the coalition is particularly concerned with the lake bed parcels, because that land would most likely draw developer interest.

“It’s very important for the coalition overall to see those parcels go into conservation ownership,” said Arnold. “The plan has areas where we feel we had a strong consensus and then some areas where we might not have such a strong consensus. But the conservation of those lake bed parcels is absolutely imperative [for the community].”

PacifiCorp has no obligation to take LWSC’s Vision Plan into consideration. But the groups have been in contact.

“We were in communication with PacifiCorp at the beginning of our NPS technical assistant grant,” said Arnold. “We needed to make sure we could access the land for the purpose of the developing the Vision Plan. They were okay with that. We met a couple of times. … We have asked to meet with them to discuss the Vision Plan, but do not have a date yet.”

Despite the lack of commitment, the LWSC remains cautiously optimistic.

“For no particular good reason, we feel that PacifiCorp is on board with the conservation emphasis of the Vision Plan,” said Arnold. “They did their due diligence years ago about finding which parcels could be sold profitably, and apparently after they sold the 39 acres there were not any more, without short platting and such. … We’re just hoping that we can continue to be a voice for what we feel is a pretty clear consensus as discussions go on.”

The Pacific Northwest’s only nonprofit, non-advertiser-driven news source devoted to environmental issues affecting the Columbia River Basin, Columbia Insight depends on support from readers like you. You can help us continue investigating critical stories by donating here.

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A new idea could ease tensions between farmers and solar energy developers

Agrivoltaics integrates solar power and crop cultivation to the benefit of both. An OSU prof thinks it could be the future

Agrivoltaic farm

Farm friendly? Agrivoltaics project at Oregon State University’s North Willamette Research and Extension Center in Aurora, Oregon. Photo: Dan Orzech

By Kendra Chamberlain. November 23, 2023. Solar energy and agriculture can play nice—in fact, solar panels might actually allow farmers to produce better crop yields.

It sounds counterintuitive, but that’s what Oregon State University Professor Chad Higgins is hoping to prove with a pilot agrivoltaics project in the Willamette Valley.

His project runs contrary to prevailing narratives in rural areas, where encroaching renewable energy facilities are seen as a threat to agriculture.

Higgins spoke about the project during a two-day conference held earlier this month in Corvallis by the nonprofit Sustainable Northwest.

“It’s not that the solar panels are impeding farm progress,” Higgins told the audience. “They are literally farming equipment that is used to manage a farm resource—light.”

Solar Harvest, the agrivoltaics collaboration between Oregon Clean Power Coop and OSU’s College of Agriculture, is the first field-scale research station aimed at studying whether solar panels can improve things like soil health, water use and crop yields.

It’s also part of a community solar program serving electricity to OSU’s North Willamette Research and Extension Center.

Solar Harvest just completed its first growing season after coming online in April.

Higgins said his group celebrated with a big harvest meal, which included watermelon grown without irrigation.

Throwing shade

Vast tracts of open land make agricultural areas a great place to place solar arrays.

But can large panels coexist with crops or livestock?

Chad Higgins, associate professor in the College of Agricultural Sciences at Oregon State University

Sunny outlook: Chris Higgins. Photo: OSU

Higgins calls sunlight the “forgotten resource” on agricultural land.

“It’s the one that is least likely to be managed,” said Higgins, adding that sunlight is always in excess on a farm.

“It’s uncommon to realize how much energy is in sunlight. There’s so much energy in sunlight that the plants can’t take it all,” he said.

Placing solar panels on agricultural land can serve a dual purpose.

The panels generate energy that can be used by the farm—or delivered to residential homes.

Panels can also help plants and animals survive the hottest, driest parts of the year by providing shade. Shade can translate into reduced water demand.

“What is the plant to do when it gets too much energy? It heats up. What’s the only thing a plant can do to cool down? Drink water,” said Higgins. “So all of that excess solar that goes onto the plants is translated one-to-one to water draw from the ground—that goes into nothing productive. All you have to do is shade the plants and you save a proportional amount of water.”

Extra shade offers other benefits to the crops: cooler soils, increased humidity, less stress on plants and potentially increased crop yields.

The Solar Harvest project is testing a range of shade and water conditions to see what works best, “because somewhere—and I don’t know where it is, because no one’s studied this—somewhere there is the perfect combination of light and water to make the plants grow the best,” said Higgins.

Atypical array

There are limits to how much shade plants will tolerate—and not all plants can be optimized using shade.

But for crops such as alfalfa, beets, bok choy, cabbage, carrots, lettuce, spinach, sweet potatoes, turnips and yams, farmers could shade their plants up to 50%, depending on the species, with little consequences on output.

There’s nothing revolutionary about providing shade to crops. But farmers receive an additional bonus by using solar panels instead of more traditional means, such as shade cloth.

“Why not shade it with something that creates a tertiary farm product?” asked Higgins. “This is where you get into agrivoltaics: you engineer a system such that it removes the excess sunlight to optimally manage your farm resource for the benefit of the crop.”

Solar array and sheep

Shady acres: Sheep graze under the 35th Street Solar Array at Oregon State University. Photo by Mark Floyd/OSU

Solar Harvest is a 120 kW array. It uses bifacial solar panels that let some amount of light through to the ground, but provide enough shade to help plants cool off.

“These systems don’t look exactly like a standard solar array,” said Higgins.

The solar panels tilt upwards to allow farming equipment to pass between the rows, preserving 95% of the farm footprint.

Farmers can manage sunlight by moving the panels into different configurations, some up some down, for example, to reach specific outcomes.

“If you are at a deficit of 30% water, you can take 30% of the light away and not have to suffer,” said Higgins.

Some research shows that crops can actually help increase the efficiency of the solar panels, too. The panels operate better in cooler conditions, just like the plants do.

Taking agrivoltaics mainstream

Solar Harvest, which will provide research over a 20-year period, is one of the first pilot projects of its kind in the country. Higgins hopes his research will pave the way for more acceptance of solar energy among rural communities.

Nationally, the agrivoltaics industry is still nascent.

There are only a handful of commercial agrivoltaic installations across the country. But with wider adoption, the sector could help the nation meet its decarbonization goals.

An OSU study from 2020 estimates widespread adoption of agrivoltaics could put a dent of 330,470 metric tons in the agriculture sector’s greenhouse gas emissions annually.

There are obstacles to overcome.

In Oregon, permitting is one of the largest barriers. Under Oregon state law, areas with better soils for agriculture are not typically permitted for renewable energy installations.

“Willamette Valley is a Goldilocks zone for agriculture,” said Higgins. “It’s actually a fantastic place to do agri-solar, if the community wants it.”

The Pacific Northwest’s only nonprofit, non-advertiser-driven news source devoted to environmental issues affecting the Columbia River Basin, Columbia Insight depends on support from readers like you. You can help us continue investigating critical stories by donating here.

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In the Klickitat River Delta, a microcosm of Pac NW stakeholder clashes

Can salmon, steelhead, eagles, kiteboarders, Tribes, BNSF, the Forest Service and one tiny Washington town come together to share a unique piece of water?

Kiteboarder Columbia River

Tricky spot: Kiteboarders around the Klckitat River Delta are attracting attention. Not all of it good. Photo: Jurgenhessphotography

By Bill Weiller. October 26, 2023. Just east of its origin in Vancouver, Washington, State Route 14 is one of the most scenic and historic highways in the Pacific Northwest, if not the entire country.

Forming a section of the Lewis and Clark Trail Scenic Byway, the highway winds through the entirety of the Columbia River Gorge.

Heading east, where SR 14 enters the tiny town of Lyle (pop. 269), most motorists steal glances over their right shoulders across the Columbia River to marvel at the towering bluffs around the Rowena Crest Viewpoint on the Oregon side of the Gorge.

With such spectacular scenery, it’s easy to miss another remarkable feature of the area—one that’s recently emerged as a flashpoint for stakeholder conflict, and become a microcosm of similar issues playing out around the Pacific Northwest, as an increasing number of interest groups, government agencies, tribal nations and private citizens vie for access to and control over public resources impacted by climate change and steadily growing public usage.

On the outskirts of Lyle, the Klickitat River flows into the Columbia River, creating the Klickitat River Delta.

Klickitat River Delta

Delta don: Lyle, Washington, is located on the banks of both the Columbia and Klickitat Rivers. Photo: Jurgenhessphotography

Just below a highway bridge that passes over the river, the delta spreads out across the Columbia River like a broad and shallow fan, creating the point of Klickitat River access for migrating salmon and steelhead, and the birds that feed on them.

These same conditions also happen to make the delta perfect for kiteboarders. Lots of kiteboarders.

Therein lies, at least for now, a major challenge for the town of Lyle, conservationists, recreationists, the land-owning BNSF Railway and various government entities.

As president of the Lyle Community Council, I’ve been involved for several years with a public process undertaken to resolve issues surrounding legal access to the Klickitat River Delta.

Though work is ongoing, issues around the delta have proven tricky to sort out.

Fish and wildlife concerns

Once used for cattle grazing as part of a Starr Ranch operation, the Klickitat River Delta became a focal point of conservation efforts when the U.S. Forest Service bought the ranchland in 1994.

The USFS also owns the spit of land that stretches into the delta.

Bald eagle a Klickitat River Delta

Fish flight: Eagles converge on the Klickitat River Delta for winter feeding. Photo: Jurgenhessphotogrpahy

After its purchase of Starr Ranch land, the USFS constructed facilities and a loop trail leading to what it now accurately deems “a prime bald eagle viewing spot” in winter months. In winter, eagles from around the Pacific Northwest migrate to the area to feed on spawned-out salmon that wash up on the delta’s sand and gravel bars, making them easy pickings.

As I learned during an Oregon State University pilot class called Climate Stewards, which took place on the banks of the delta in September, salmon and steelhead migrating up the Columbia River are attracted to the delta’s cool waters.

Snow-melt water flowing into the Columbia from the Klickitat—which originates on Mount Adams in the high country of the Yakama Indian Reservation—makes the delta a vital cold water refuge for salmon and steelhead in the warming Columbia.

Three speakers in the Climate Stewards class—two from the Yakama Nation and one USFS staff—explained the challenges of maintaining the delta as a cold water refuge.

In recent years, the delta’s waist-deep waters have been warming. That’s a troubling trend for salmon and steelhead, which are sensitive to water temperatures.

What’s more, according to the USFS, it’s been a boon to freshwater bass, which prey on salmon smolts.

The Yakama Nation has championed federal research into deepening the channel by dredging the area where the Klickitat River flows into the Columbia. The hope is to keep water temperatures there relatively cool, and, thus, safer for salmon and steelhead.

Enter kiteboarders

The delta’s shallow, warming waters have also been a boon to another group—kiteboarders.

No one knows precisely when the delta became a magnet for kiteboarders—the area was the site of sailboarding speed trials in the 1980s, according to one local source—but their activity here has picked up considerably over the past decade.

“The Klickitat Delta has perfect launching conditions only found in two other locales … in the world,” according to Mike Evans, who works with the Columbia Gorge Wind & Water Association.

Those “perfect conditions” include a broad, shallow launch point leading to a wide body of water with reliable wind.

The undeveloped delta has been discovered.

Visitor data wasn’t collected during the 2023 summer recreation season, but Lyle Community Council members estimate that hundreds if not thousands of kiteboarders descended on the delta, likely even more so than in previous years when usage was heavy.

Part of that estimate is based on tickets for illegal parking issued by Klickitat County deputies.

Along the highway, a potholed, gravel turnout provides haphazard delta parking for about 15 vehicles. From there, one either runs across the busy highway then heads down a hill and across a set of railroad tracks to the delta, or (wisely) takes a footpath under the road then crosses the tracks to enter the site.

No signs mark the parking spot. No restrooms or other facilities are in sight. No fees are collected. Rashawn Tama of the USFS calls it an “unmanaged site.”

Many drivers resort to simply parking along the highway or in other unauthorized places.

Railroad no trespassing sign

Defiance: Kiteboarders are flying past the law. Photo: Jurgenhessphotography

The parking situation along SR 14 has also raised the hackles of the BNSF Railway, by some estimates the largest freight railroad in the United States.

BNSF owns tracks and a wide swath of land between the highway and Columbia River.

Despite visible signage forbidding the public from crossing the tracks, kiteboarders (and others) regularly trespass over railroad property in order to gain access to the delta.

The railroad has backed up its warnings to trespassers by issuing its own citations.

Adding intrigue, Klickitat County Prosecuting Attorney David Quesnel told the Lyle Community Council this summer he would not prosecute the railroad’s tickets. (BNSF did not respond to a request for comment for this story.)

Resolution efforts

It’s not clear what impact recreation is having on the fish and wildlife that depend on the Klickitat River Delta.

During the Climate Stewards class, one of the Yakama Nation speakers confirmed that the Tribe’s interest in the delta lies with conservation, not recreation. This presumably explained why the Tribe has shown little interest in engaging in conversations about access to the delta. (Yakama Nation Fisheries did not respond to a request for comment for this story.)

The effort to allow legal recreation in the Klicktat River Delta and settle ongoing access disputes will ultimately require cooperation from all interested parties. All voices are valid and should be heard and considered

In 2021, the Lyle Community Council formed a Delta Committee to resolve issues surrounding delta access. In the past year, participation has grown to include the USFS, kiteboarders, local citizens, Klickitat County, the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission (which regulates the railroads) and Washington State Parks. To date, neither BNSF nor the Yakama Nation have joined official discussions.

Bringing BNSF to the table will likely require conducting a feasibility study that would recommend solutions. That process is costly.

Klickitat River Delta image by Google Earth

Fan base: Cool water flowing from the Klickitat (seen here in light green) into the Columbia River creates a cold water refuge for migrating fish. Photo: Google Earth

Another potential partner, the National Park Service, has a small recreation and trails grant program that provides free community mediation and can provide project funding. This year, the Lyle Community Council and USFS developed a joint grant proposal to the NPS, but the USFS decided not to submit the proposal when it became clear the Yakama Nation would not join the process.

Even if the railroad agrees to make public access to the delta legal, the fish-friendly dredging project could produce a tonnage of mucky spoils that would likely be placed on the delta’s sandbar and planted with native vegetation, potentially rendering the site unsuitable as a put-in location for kiteboarders.

While the Lyle Community Council is on record supporting salmon restoration at the delta, it’s unknown whether fish and kiteboards will ultimately be able to coexist on a small patch of delta that, at least in winter, remains a lonely and lovely place to walk … illegally.

The views expressed in this article belong solely to its author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of anyone else associated with Columbia Insight.

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BLM has a plan to tackle booming recreation — at least in theory

People with off-highway vehicles recreate at Anthony Sand Dunes, Idaho.
Bob Wick/Bureau of Land Management

People visited Bureau of Land Management land more than 80 million times in 2022, hiking, biking, driving, exploring, hunting, fishing, climbing, camping and otherwise recreating. That’s a 40% increase over the past decade. In the same time period, the BLM’s recreation budget rose by only 22%.

The combination translates into a vexing problem for public-land managers in the West: Popular areas risk being loved to death. On the ground, this means more cars, trucks and ATVs barreling over sensitive species, and more garbage littering more trails through winter wildlife range and campsites. Meanwhile, the agency lacks the resources to keep up.

“In the past, we’ve had the luxury of being passive, because our lands haven’t faced that much pressure,” says Joel Webster, vice president of Western conservation for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “But now, if we’re not proactive, it’s going to have some serious consequences.”

In an attempt to head off those consequences, the BLM recently released a 28-page document called the “Blueprint for 21st Century Outdoor Recreation.” In it, the agency takes on persistent issues linked to recreation’s increasing popularity, including harm to sacred tribal sites, chronic funding shortfalls and barriers to equal use, such as limited outreach and lack of diverse staffing.

The plan itself reads at a high level, addressing four broad goals: bringing in more money, building partnerships across public and private sectors, improving outreach and inclusion, and protecting the land while meeting the demands of increased recreation. The public has until Sept. 30 to give feedback to the agency.

The document is not a formal plan, but Webster said its recommendations could help relieve some concrete recreational pressures, beginning with the fact that only about 30% of BLM lands have a basic travel management plan. That means new roads and trails pop up across landscapes from sagebrush to slickrock, with little regard for an area’s wildlife and cultural sites.

A trailhead at the 32,000-acre Cline Buttes Recreation Area in central Oregon.
Bob Wick/Bureau of Land Management

As a first step, the agency should account for existing trails and roads, said Megan Lawson, an economist for Headwaters Economics, a nonprofit research firm based in Montana. The BLM has successfully identified most of its natural resource development opportunities. Doing the same for its trails would not only help protect important sites, but also help local communities manage and benefit from recreation.

The agency also needs to figure out just how many people are using various sites and find ways to prevent crowding and overuse at the most popular areas.

Take Moab, Utah. Visitation exploded there with hikers, bikers, climbers and campers drawn by its famous swooping sandstone, wavy dunes and towering crags. But Moab is also heralded as an example of how to respond, with hikers, bikers — both motorized and non — and other community members working with the BLM diligently, year after year, to build and maintain trails able to handle the ever-increasing crush of visitors. The coalition has also helped ease the burden on nearby national parks by redirecting thrill-seekers to other vast tracts of public land.

But it takes money, Lawson said, to track trail-users and post signs, build outhouses and educate visitors in multiple languages, and not all communities have the financial resources of an outdoor mecca like Moab.

And the BLM’s recreation budget is “trending in the wrong direction,” said Kevin Oliver, BLM’s division chief for recreation and visitor services. Ten years ago, the BLM spent about 84 cents on each visit. Today that number has fallen to 74 cents.

The agency is seeking fundraising help from the Foundation for America’s Public Lands, its congressionally authorized charitable partner, Oliver said. This could include individual donations and possibly corporate sponsors. It is also hoping for a financial boost from federal laws like the Great American Outdoors Act, which set aside billions of dollars for access to and infrastructure improvements on public lands.

BLM officials aren’t complaining about having more visitors; Oliver called the recreation spike “fantastic.” But they acknowledge that, as things stand, they simply cannot cope with the increasing demands. They know that the 40% visitation bump isn’t an aberration: Americans want to get outside.

The new document stresses the importance of states, tribes and local communities working with the BLM to come up with solutions. But the coalitions they create need to be durable, Oliver said, given inevitable changes in administrations and political priorities.

Webster agrees. While the growing numbers of visitors have already damaged some popular areas and put pressure on wildlife from elk to sage grouse, especially in states like Colorado, the bulk of BLM lands are not yet recreation destinations. But that can change quickly, and Webster wants the agency to plan ahead.

“It’s a lot harder to pull things back in if you’ve made a mistake than it is to do it right from the beginning,” Webster said. “And there’s just more people in the West, and more people recreating on our public lands.”

A mountain biking trail on Bureau of Land Management land near Moab, Utah, offers views of Arches National Park. In recent years, the BLM and local community members have built new trails to help ease the burden on nearby national parks.
Leslie Kehmeier/International Mountain Bicycling Association/BLM

Christine Peterson lives in Laramie, Wyoming, and has covered science, the environment and outdoor recreation in Wyoming for more than a decade. Her work has appeared in National Geographic, Outdoor Life and the Casper Star-Tribune, among others. We welcome reader letters. Email High Country News at or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.

Why Washington’s Tunnel 5 Fire is destined to be repeated

Without a major policy shift, more private homes will burn and more public money will be spent trying to protect them

Not all can be saved: A Fire Boss amphibious air tanker dumps 200 gallons of water over the Tunnel 5 Fire. The house in flames (left) and directly beneath the water drop were completely destroyed. Photo: Jurgen Hess

By Jurgen Hess. August 3, 2023. On July 2, the Tunnel 5 Fire began in Underwood, Washington, about two miles west of the town of White Salmon in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.

Before being 80% contained by mid-July, the fire scorched 529 acres and destroyed 10 structures, mostly homes. At least 40 fire engines, 256 firefighters and other personnel, five helicopters, six dozers and 16 water tenders were employed to fight the blaze.

The cost is still being calculated, but a single retardant drop by jet airplane on the Tunnel 5 Fire cost as much as $12,400.

The expense for fighting the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire on the Oregon side of the Columbia River Gorge eventually reached $40 million.

For two weeks, the Tunnel 5 Fire provided a shocking and unsettling sight as flames and smoke billowed above a stretch of the Columbia River dotted with large, cliff-top homes.

But it was hardly unprecedented.

In 2007, the Broughton Fire burned 200 acres and seven structures (including five houses) in the precise location.

That fire was caused by the BNSF Railway Company’s grinding of nearby railroad tracks. “Track grinding” or “rail grinding” repairs deformities and corrosion of rail tracks due to heavy use. The process creates sparks.

The cause of the Tunnel 5 Fire remains under investigation.

Close call: The Tunnel 5 Fire blew up steep slopes carried by fuels of trees, shrubs and grass. This house was fortunate to be spared from the fire. Photo: Jurgen Hess

Two wildfires in the exact location in just 16 years—is this simply a coincidence, a supreme stroke of bad luck?

Unfortunately no.

The Broughton and Tunnel 5 Fires burned, proved so difficult to fight and were wildly expensive to contain for similar reasons.

Might another catastrophic blaze burn in the same area in the near future?

Unfortunately it’s likely.

The reasons have to do with the geography of the area around Underwood and particular regulations that govern private property in the National Scenic Area.

But they also point to broader issues involving the encroachment of residential homes in heavily forested areas, and the way the U.S. Forest Service currently prioritizes private real estate (i.e., houses) over public resources (i.e., trees and surrounding habitat) when fighting fires.

Is such a policy wise? Is it in the public’s interest?

With national insurance companies beginning to refuse to issue policies for homes in some parts of the country due to “growing catastrophic exposure,” is it time to reconsider the construction of houses in fire-prone areas and the way we fight nearby fires when they inevitably come?

Recipe for disaster

Located along Washington State Route 14 at the confluence of the White Salmon and Columbia Rivers, Underwood is an unincorporated community within the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. Its position atop a set of bluffs commands fantastic views of the Columbia River Gorge and, across the river into Oregon, Mount Hood.

But the bluffs atop which the community sits are so steep they form a nearly vertical wall.

In summer, these slopes are covered with highly flammable dry grass, brush and trees. One source of ignition and a decent wind are all that’s needed to send fires roaring up the hillside. (In the first days of the Tunnel 5 Fire, winds gusted between 35 and 40 mph.)

Heaven meet Hell: Slopes below Cook Underwood Road burned right up to the hilltop houses. Photo: Jurgen Hess

At the bottom of the bluffs, SR-14 and adjacent railroad tracks—both proven and potent sources of ignition—parallel the river.

At the top of the bluffs, Cook Underwood Road is lined with over 50 houses, each surrounded by forest, trees and brush.

The recipe for disaster is obvious.

“We can’t stop the fires, [we] shouldn’t build there,” Robin Dobson, a retired U.S. Forest Service ecologist who worked in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area for 24 years, told Columbia Insight after the Tunnel 5 Fire. “We need to use our common sense.”

“Nobody thinks [fire] can happen to them, but the reality is that it does,” said Dan Harkenrider, USFS National Scenic Area manager from 2001 to 2011.

How Firewise are we?

In 2002, recognizing the growing problem of wildfires in rural residential areas (especially California), the National Fire Protection Agency created an educational program called Firewise Communities USA. The idea was to teach homeowners best practices for how to live “fire wise” in Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) areas as a way to mitigate potential wildfire losses.

Firewise measures include removing shrubbery and trees close to home ignition points by creating a “lean, clean and green landscape” zone; using fire-resistant building materials; screening house vents; and keeping gutters free of burnable material.

Dan Richardson, Underwood Conservation District, Climate and Community Resilience lead, administers the Firewise program in Underwood by doing a wildfire home hazard assessment.

Firewise home review in Columbia River Gorge

Passing grade: Dan Richardson (right) conducts a Firewise review at the Columbia River Gorge home of Luci Walker and Kevin Widener. Photo: Jurgen Hess

On a recent visit to the home of Luci Walker and Kevin Widener (north of Cook Underwood Road, not in the immediate area of burned houses), Richardson walked around the perimeter of the home looking for vegetation too close the house.

After explaining that most house fires are started by glowing embers, he noted that all vents in the house were well screened and that the house siding was made of unburnable cement board. The gutters were largely empty of burnable debris. There was no bark dust, which is very flammable.

A small juniper plant was recommended for removal.

A question arose of what to do about a long line of large Douglas fir trees on the east property line. Those trees could carry a crown fire.

Richardson concluded that picking up limbs and debris, cutting branches to a height of 10 feet and thinning out smaller trees would help reduce fire risk.

Overall, the homeowners got a report that the house met Firewise standards, with a few recommendations for improvement.

Conflicting guidelines

The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Management Plan includes provisions for implementing Firewise practices.

“The reviewing agency shall provide information on Firewise standards to landowners at the time of application (for a building permit),” states the plan. “Landowners shall be encouraged to incorporate Firewise standards in their proposal.”

Fire-risk directions are also included in the Gorge Commission’s recently adopted Climate Change Action Plan.

But Lisa Naas Cook, a planner with the Gorge Commission, says meeting National Scenic Area standards of scenic preservation and reducing fire risk is a tricky dance.

That’s because homeowners in the Gorge are bound by National Scenic Area Management Plan regulations that require houses be screened with trees or other vegetation to meet scenic-protection measures.

Air war: Black spots in the sky during the Tunnel 5 Fire are hot embers driven by upslope winds. During wildland fires, embers are the primary ignition source for house fires. Photo: Jurgen Hess

In a way it feels like a trap, with Firewise and National Scenic Area guidelines appearing to be at odds.

“Absolutely there is a conflict between fire safety (and scenic standards),” said ecologist Dobson.

Cook said the Commission plans to take a closer look at the issue during its next Management Plan review.

According to the Gorge Commission’s website, the Commission can amend its plan “if it finds that conditions in the National Scenic Area have significantly changed.”

At this time, however, there is no proposal on record to amend the plan.

During the public input phase of the Climate Change Action Plan development, several members of the public argued for more stringent standards to reduce fire risk.

Janet Wainwright, a former Gorge commissioner, wrote: “Mandate (not suggest) all new construction adhere to Firewise standards. Make this one of the requirements of application approval.”

But such measures can do only so much to prevent wildfires from burning homes built within forests and other wilderness areas.

“Homeowners who live in forested settings must take responsibility and prepare their property to survive wildfire rather than relying on firefighters to save their homes,” said Jack Cohen, a USFS research scientist. “Because during intense fire conditions firefighters will likely be overwhelmed.”

Private property vs. public treasure

When fighting fires, USFS policy dictates that saving human lives is the top priority, followed by saving property, such as houses and businesses.

This became a problem when the Tunnel 5 Fire struck. Firefighters weren’t sent onto the steep slopes below the Underwood houses due to safety risks.

“It’s just too hazardous for firefighters to work on the steep ground,” Bobby Shindelar of Northwest Incident Management Team 12 told Columbia Gorge News.

Instead, at a great financial cost, aircraft dropped water and retardant on the steep slopes.

Extreme slopes: It’s not just flames and smoke that imperil firefighters. Treacherous inclines, like those faced by these Tunnel 5 firefighters, introduce another level of danger. Photo: Wash. DNR

Firewise is good practice, but after an event like the Tunnel 5 Fire it’s reasonable to wonder how much homeowners can realistically do to prevent the loss of property constructed in such an obviously precarious place.

Shifting attitudes of insurance companies may also become a factor in the way we view fighting fires.

On May 26, State Farm Insurance announced it would no longer accept applications for home and business insurance in California due to “historic increases in construction costs outpacing inflation, rapidly growing catastrophe exposure and a challenging reinsurance market.”

Some of those increased construction costs and catastrophic exposures are related to high fire risk and requirements to make new homes fire-safe.

In conversations with Columbia Insight, County Commissioner Lennon, Scenic Area Manager Harkenrider and several Tunnel 5 firefighters said they believed insurance policies would be a “check” and on future construction in fire-hazard zones.

But David Waymie, director of the Skamania County Public Works and Planning Department, which administers building permits in the area of the Tunnel 5 Fire, said his department is unlikely to require fire-protection measures for homes being rebuilt in the wake of the fire.

But, he said, “there is a risk in living in the forest. While the view is tremendous, there is a fire danger.”

Homeowners in Skamania County have two years to start the process of replacing a burned house.

Same old, same old?

Another fire in Underwood is likely because conditions that led to the previous two fires will remain stable.

SR-14 isn’t going anywhere. Neither are the railroad tracks nor the steep, vegetated cliffs directly below the community.

For maybe 10 years or so after a fire, fuels and risks are lower. But with hotter and dryer weather fire risk is increasing, especially on these slopes,” said Lorretta Duke, South Zone fire management officer of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, a portion of which is located in Skamania County.

Duke also points to rail-grinding operations. “Consider timing of grinding to not do that during high fire danger times,” she said.

“There needs to be conversations with Burlington Northern as to their track-grinding procedures,” Skamania County Commissioner Tom Lennon told Columbia Insight when asked about preventing future fires in the area.

Others are more blunt in their assessment of construction and rebuilding of houses destroyed or damaged in areas of high fire risk.

“It seems crazy to build a new house in this fire-risk zone,” said Harkenrider. “Where is the line where people shouldn’t be allowed to build?”

The post Why Washington’s Tunnel 5 Fire is destined to be repeated first appeared on Columbia Insight.

The post Why Washington’s Tunnel 5 Fire is destined to be repeated appeared first on Columbia Insight.

Why Washington’s Tunnel 5 Fire is destined to be repeated was first posted on August 3, 2023 at 9:19 am.
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Oregon’s Greater Idaho movement echoes a long history of racism in the region

The latest movement, Greater Idaho, seeks to slice off almost everything east of the Cascade Mountains and add it to Idaho, uniting the right-leaning portions of the Beaver State with its more conservative neighbor. Nearly two dozen people conceived the idea over pizza and soft drinks in a La Pine, Oregon, restaurant in 2019.

Organizers frame Greater Idaho as a natural byproduct of Oregon’s “urban/rural divide” — shorthand for how populous cities can sway a state’s politics. The idea is far-fetched: In order for eastern Oregon to become Idaho, Oregon’s Democratic-dominated Legislature, Idaho’s Republican-dominated Legislature and the divided United States Congress would all have to agree. Still, the campaign has gained attention, garnering articles in national media outlets; in 2021, The Atlantic called it “Modern America’s Most Successful Secessionist Movement.”

But less attention has been paid to its underlying motives and how they fit into the Northwest’s long history of racially motivated secessionism. Over time, Greater Idaho has slowly revealed itself to be something of a poisoned apple: framed as a gift to discontented rural people, but actually a front for far-right culture war talking points, including racist ones.

The movement’s website and leaders echo Trumpian rhetoric about “illegals” and lambast Oregon for education programs about Black history and public health measures that prioritize communities of color. During the first year of COVID-19 restrictions, in 2020, Mike McCarter, a movement leader, told a regional website that Oregon “protects Antifa arsonists, not normal Oregonians.” He added, “It prioritizes one race above another for vaccines and program money and in the school curriculum, and it prioritizes Willamette Valley” — where Portland is located — “above rural Oregon.”

In 2021, Eric Ward, then-executive director of Western States Center, a Portland-based pro-democracy think tank, accused Greater Idaho of simply reviving what the Oregon Capital Insider described as a “white ethno-state dream.” The center’s advocacy arm later sponsored anti-Greater Idaho TV ads.

Over time, Greater Idaho has slowly revealed itself to be something of a poisoned apple: framed as a gift to discontented rural people, but actually a front for far-right culture war talking points, including racist ones.

McCarter pushed back: “Calling us racist seems to be an attempt to associate a legitimate, grass-roots movement of rural Oregonians with Hollywood’s stereotypes of low-class, ignorant, evil, ugly, dirty Southerners,” he said in a statement posted alongside photographs of Ward and Western States Center’s board — who are all Black — and the center’s staff. “(Ward’s) words mark anyone with a Greater Idaho sign or a Greater Idaho hat as targets for violent antifa members.”

Meanwhile, prominent racists were fired up about the idea. White nationalist leader Jared Taylor touted it on his podcast: “People who live out in the continents of rural sanity, they don’t want to be governed by the people who live on those islands of urban insanity,” he said. The audio was repurposed for a video on the far-right social network Gab — where former Fox News host Tucker Carlson is considered a trusted media source and no one would get banned for posting a swastika. Users buzzed about Greater Idaho.

Articles and clips on the anti-immigrant website VDARE also promoted it. One blog post said that Greater Idaho “would free eastern Oregonians from the anti-white, totalitarian leftists who rule the state.” A video warned that Oregon “won’t protect its residents from thugs, illegal aliens, communist rioters and other undesirables.”

Because Greater Idaho is unlikely to become a reality, “people dismiss it,” said Stephen Piggott, a program director with Western States Center. And that, he believes, is dangerous: “People are not connecting the dots,” he said. “The people who want to create a white homeland are backing it.”

WHEN OREGON WAS ADMITTED to the Union, its Constitution contained a clause banning Black people from moving there — the only state with such a provision. Even before its borders were drawn, people floated the idea of creating a slave-owning haven in what is now southern Oregon and Northern California, branding it the “Territory of Jackson,” after President Andrew Jackson. Confederate sympathizers considered several of the new state’s southernmost counties “the Dixie of Oregon.” Later, in the mid-20th century, the State of Jefferson movement emerged in the same area; it nixed owning slaves, but retained a slave owner as its namesake. Driven by people who felt they were over-taxed by Oregon and California, the movement still has supporters.

The secessionist torch passed from generation to generation. The phrasing changed, but the talking points remained the same.

In 1986, after migrating from California to North Idaho to build a racist refuge for his group the Aryan Nations, white supremacist Richard Butler hosted his annual Aryan World Congress — a national gathering of neo-Nazis, racist skinheads and members of the Ku Klux Klan. They agreed that, in the not-so-distant future, U.S. cities would become so overrun by minority groups that white people would be forced to flee to an “Aryan homeland” they envisioned in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.

Butler died in 2004. Eventually, his compound was fully bulldozed and his acolytes scattered, but his ideas remained and evolved. In 2011, survivalist blogger and New York Times best-selling novelist James Wesley, Rawles floated an idea called “The American Redoubt.” (According to the Anti-Defamation League, some individuals add errant punctuation to their names to distinguish their first and middle names from their government-imposed or family names.) He encouraged Christians of any race who felt alienated by urban progressive politics to relocate to the Northwest, writing: “I’m inviting people with the same outlook to move to the Redoubt states.” Recently, the Idaho Freedom Foundation, a right-wing political think tank, echoed this. “Are you a refugee from California, or some other liberal playground?” it asked on its website, welcoming those newcomers as “true” Idahoans.

Starting in 2015, then-Washington state Rep. Matt Shea, R, pushed to sever his state at the Cascades, rebranding the rural eastern half as “The State of Liberty,” which advocated against same-sex marriage, marijuana and environmental regulations. Shea distributed a document calling for Old Testament biblical law to be enacted. On its website, Liberty State organizers suggest that if Liberty becomes a reality, they would be open to merging with Greater Idaho.

Within the last two years, Vincent James Foxx, a white nationalist associated with the Rise Above Movement — a group the Southern Poverty Law Center described as “an overtly racist, violent right-wing fight club”— relocated to Post Falls, Idaho. “A true, actual right-wing takeover is happening right now in the state of Idaho,” Foxx declared.

Greater Idaho is driven by ideas similar to those behind past movements: fleeing cities, lauding traditionalist Christian values, pushing a far-right political agenda. “Ultimately, I think in some ways, Butler’s vision is coming true,” said David Neiwert, an expert on far-right extremism and the author of The Age of Insurrection.

What all these secessionist ideas have in common, Neiwert said, is that they are anti-democracy. Greater Idaho’s organizers “don’t really want to put up with democracy,” he said. “They don’t want to deal with the fact that if you want to have your position win in the political arena, you have to convince a bunch of people. They just want to take their ball and create a new playground.”

Gary Raney, former sheriff of Idaho’s Ada County, where Boise is located, disliked seeing his state “being advertised as an extremist haven.” In response, last year he founded Defend and Protect Idaho, a political action committee that fights political extremism. “Everybody’s entitled to their opinion, and I welcome that discourse and discussion,” he said. “But when people are wanting to overthrow our government or our republic or our democracy … there’s nothing healthy about that.”

What all these secessionist ideas have in common, Neiwert said, is that they are anti-democracy. Greater Idaho’s organizers “don’t really want to put up with democracy,” he said.

In 2023, the Idaho House of Repre-sentatives passed a nonbinding proposal calling for formal talks with the Oregon Legislature about moving the border, though no such talks occurred. Raney sees Greater Idaho as “driving a wedge” in rural communities, using resentment over urban power to recruit people to more extreme causes. “The good people of Oregon who are doing this for the right reasons: Be realistic that it’s never going to happen, and be more influential in the Oregon Legislature,” Raney said. “For the extremists who are simply using this to divide and create their right-wing haven?

“Stay the hell out of Idaho,” he said. “Because we don’t want you.”

BY GREATER IDAHO spokesman Matt McCaw’s telling, the movement is born out of opposites that run as deep as the land itself. “The west side of the state is urban. It’s green, it’s very left-leaning,” he said in an interview with High Country News. “The east side of the state is conservative, it’s rural, it’s very dry. It’s a different climate.

“Give me a topic, and I can tell you that the people in Portland feel one way about it and vote one way, and the people in eastern Oregon or rural Oregon feel one way about it and vote differently,” he said. “Stereotype is a word that maybe gets a bad rap.”

To become Idahoans, McCaw explained, would mean “to have traditional values that focus on faith, freedom, individualism and tradition.” He pointed to Oregon’s liberal voting record on gun control, abortion and drug legalization. “Broadly, the people (in eastern Oregon) are very like-minded, just like broadly the people in the Portland metro area are very like-minded,” he said. “On these issues, Portland has a very distinctly different set of values than rural America.”

Speaking of differences, there are big ones between Idaho and Oregon. In rural Oregon counties, minimum wage is $12.50; in Idaho, it’s $7.25. Marijuana is legal in Oregon; in Idaho, possession can be punishable with jail time. In Idaho, abortion is essentially illegal; earlier this year, Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek announced the state had acquired a three-year stockpile of mifepristone, a drug used for medical abortions. While there are no detailed plans on how Greater Idaho would bridge these gaps, McCaw said that “all of these things can be worked out.”

But is he upset by the white supremacist support for Greater Idaho? “I think that the extremist thing gets overblown,” he said. “In any group, there are going to be extremists that latch on, no matter if you want them or not.”

Nella Mae Parks, an eastern Oregonian, was raised in Union County, Oregon, and runs a farm there. She doesn’t recognize Greater Idaho’s portrayal of her home. “I think it’s a bought-and-paid-for narrative about what it means to be a rural American,” she said.

On the day Parks spoke to High Country News, she and a dozen other eastern Oregonians had just returned home after a 12-hour round-trip drive to Salem, Oregon’s capital, in an effort to get legislators to address nitrate water pollution. In 2022, commissioners in nearby Morrow County declared a state of emergency after high levels of nitrate — which is common in fertilizer and can cause cancer and respiratory issues  — were found in domestic wells.

Parks’ group came home unsure if they had accomplished anything. “The governor won’t meet with us on our issues, some of our own legislators don’t care about our issues,” Parks said. “I can understand why people feel left behind or left out, or in other ways sort of alienated from the more urban centers of power in Oregon. I think a lot of us feel that way, regardless of our politics.

“When we get blown off, that is widening this rural/urban divide,” she said.

But Parks’ solution is not to leave the state; it’s to fix it. And in May, it seemed like the effort had been worth it: Kotek told eastern Oregon leaders that she had asked the state for $6.2 million to address the nitrate issue. “It has taken a while to get here,” she admitted.

Gwen Trice, who grew up in eastern Oregon, is the executive director of the Maxville Heritage Interpretive Center, a museum in Joseph dedicated to the multicultural histories of Oregon’s loggers. She won’t call Greater Idaho a movement, or even an idea. Instead, she calls it “a notion.”

“I can understand why people feel left behind or left out, or in other ways sort of alienated from the more urban centers of power in Oregon. I think a lot of us feel that way, regardless of our politics.”

Trice founded the museum when she realized that the stories of the region’s Black loggers — including her father — had never been told. The logging industry once thrived in Maxville, now a ghost town. The Bowman-Hicks Lumber Company recruited skilled loggers from the South, regardless of race, despite laws that had long excluded Black people from settling in Oregon. “We’ve worked hard to tell, honor and even embrace the messy part of our history,” she said, “and really tell a truthful story.”

Speaking as a historian, Trice said there’s no difference between Greater Idaho and the previous, more explicitly racist movements. “It’s repackaged,” she said. “I don’t think that anything is being hidden, and it’s appealing to a certain group of people only.

“It’s symbolic of dominant culture saying, ‘We know what’s better for you than you do.’”

Pauline Braymen, an 85-year-old retired rancher in Harney County, called Greater Idaho ideological, and impractical — a way of going back in time. “The urban/rural divide is an emotionally based state of mind that distorts reality,” she said. “The changes and steps forward in our quality of life in the 20th century, during my lifetime, were amazing. I just see all of that progress and vision being destroyed.

“If I wanted to live in Idaho,” she added, “I would move there.”

ON A MAP OF THE NORTHWEST, Washington and Oregon nestle together in semi-rectangular sameness. Divided in part by the Columbia River, Washington eases its southern border into the curve of Oregon’s north, like two spoons in a drawer. But next door, Idaho asserts itself like an index finger declaring “Aha!” or a handgun aimed at the sky for a warning shot.

McCaw, the Greater Idaho spokesman, often says that borders are imaginary lines: “a tool that we use to group similarly minded people, like-minded people, culturally similar people.”

“That whole statement is absolute nonsense,” said former Idaho State Historian Keith Petersen, who wrote a book about the borders in question, titled Inventing Idaho: The Gem States Eccentric Shape. The Idaho-Oregon border, he said, simply made the most geographical sense.

In 1857, two years before statehood, delegates from across Oregon Territory gathered to determine the new state’s edges. They decided that Oregon’s border should run from Hells Canyon south into the belly of the Snake and Owyhee rivers, then drop straight down to the 42nd Parallel. Only one delegate championed the Cascade Mountains as the new state’s easternmost edge, fearful that people too far from the capital wouldn’t be effectively represented.

“This grievance that ‘the population is over there, it’s so far to get there, we’ll never have power and influence,’” Petersen said, “hasn’t changed.”

Earlier this year, at a virtual town hall, two of eastern Oregon’s own instruments of power and influence in Salem — elected Republican lawmakers — grumbled that Greater Idaho was actually siphoning authority away from them, making it hard to effectively govern.

“The Greater Idaho people keep saying we need to do this,” said Oregon State Sen. Lynn Findley, who represents people from the Cascades to Idaho. Greater Idaho supporters have proposed ballot measures across Oregon that would force county officials to hold regular discussions about joining Idaho. None of the measures actually call for moving the border. And support hasn’t exactly been overwhelming; the most recent measure, in Wallowa County, passed by just seven votes. Still, by spring 2023, voters in 12 eastern Oregon counties had approved similar measures. “I’m no longer working on gun bills, abortion bills and other infrastructure bills,” Findley said. “It’s taken time away that I think would be better spent working on tax issues, and a whole plethora of other stuff.”

“We understand the intent and we understand the frustration,” agreed Rep. Mark Owens. “But I’m not going to apologize for having not given up on Oregon.”

But by May, it seemed Findley was, in a way, giving up. He was one of a dozen Republican senators and one Independent who walked out of the Statehouse for several weeks to protest bills on abortion access, gender-affirming care and raising the minimum age to purchase semi-automatic rifles.

In the midst of the walkout, just before Memorial Day, as the rhododendrons in Northeast Portland erupted in magenta blooms, McCaw, in a blue suit and crisp white shirt, sat in front of a live audience at the Alberta Rose Theatre. He was participating in a public discussion hosted by Oregon Humanities, which facilitates statewide conversations “across differences of background, experience and belief.” The event was ostensibly about borders, but by the end it was clear that it was really about Greater Idaho. McCaw repeated his talking points: Eastern Oregonians and western Oregonians are fundamentally different; borders create tension.

“We have a permanent political minority on the east side of the state,” he said.

Beside him were two other panelists, who shifted uncomfortably in their seats. One was Alexander Baretich, who designed the Cascadia flag: a blue-, white- and green-striped banner with a Douglas Fir at its center. The flag represents the larger Cascades and Columbia River Basin bioregion, “a living space — a life space,” he explained. “Once you get into that consciousness that you are interconnected with everything around you … those political borders dissolve.”

It’s the antithesis of Greater Idaho: Cascadia unites, Greater Idaho divides. “That flag is to create that consciousness that we are one with the planet,” Baretich said. McCaw furrowed his brow.

The moderator, Adam Davis, interjected: “I actually get viscerally uncomfortable … when I hear, ‘There’s people on the east side are one way, people on the west side are another way.’” Tension, he said, is difficult, but crucial. “That tension holds what our democracy, if it’s going to be an inclusive democracy, kind of requires.”

McCaw said eastern Oregonians, in 2020, didn’t feel like Oregon was being inclusive when it issued statewide indoor mask mandates. It “super-charged our movement,” he said. “The people on the east side of the state did not want those restrictions.”

“To form a movement because other people aren’t feeling like they have a voice in the state, while completely disregarding this reality and how effective it’s been towards Indigenous people? That is the gaslighting part.”

“I’m just going to straight-up disagree,” said the other panelist, Carina Miller, a member of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and chair of the Columbia River Gorge Commission. Miller lives east of the Cascades on the Warm Springs Reservation, which McCaw told High Country News would be excluded from Greater Idaho, along with the city of Bend, because of their liberal politics.

Throughout the night, Miller repeated one phrase — “societal gaslighting.” She described growing up Indigenous in Oregon, where she received an education that normalized racist policies toward tribes, and where a boarding school built to assimilate Native youth still operates.

“To form a movement because other people aren’t feeling like they have a voice in the state, while completely disregarding this reality and how effective it’s been towards Indigenous people? That is the gaslighting part,” she said. Miller asked McCaw a question: “Do you really think that people who are advocating for Greater Idaho are the most disenfranchised people in these communities?”

People clapped before McCaw could respond.

“A strong majority of people in eastern Oregon do want this to move forward,” he said.

“But is the answer yes or no?” Miller pressed. “Are they the most disenfranchised?”

“I have no idea,” McCaw said.

Miller got the last word: She encouraged people to “hold onto each other and work it out.” The room erupted in applause.

McCaw didn’t join in. Instead, he sat perfectly still, his hands clasped tightly in his lap.   

Leah Sottile was a former correspondent for High Country News. She is a freelance journalist, the author of When the Moon Turns to Blood and the host of the podcasts Bundyville, Two Minutes Past Nine and Burn Wild. Subscribe to her newsletter The Truth Does Not Change According to Our Ability to Stomach It.

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Oregon Leadership on Child Care Front and Center at White House Event

White House takes a page from the Oregon playbook with recent calls to cap child care payments at 7% of a family’s income and other improvements to increase access SALEM, Ore. – During last week’s White House’s States Convening on Child Care in Washington, D.C., State Representative Lisa Reynolds (D-Washington County) highlighted Oregon’s leadership to […]

The post Oregon Leadership on Child Care Front and Center at White House Event appeared first on Highway 58 Herald.

College tuition breaks for Native students spread, but some tribes are left out

SALEM, Ore. — Jaeci Hall completed her dissertation in tears. She was writing about the importance of revitalizing and teaching Indigenous languages, specifically the Nuu-wee-ya’ language and her tribe’s dialects. “I spent months writing,” she said, “just crying while I wrote because of how it felt to not be recognized.”

Hall — who graduated in 2021 with a doctorate in linguistics from the University of Oregon — is the language coordinator for the Coquille Indian Tribe.

But Hall is not part of the federally recognized tribe of the Coquille. She’s part of the Confederated Tribes of Lower Rogue, which she described as the descendants of nine women who relocated and returned to the Rogue River after the Rogue River Wars of the 1850s in southern Oregon. Despite their rich history and Hall’s documentation of her heritage, Hall and her ancestors are not acknowledged by the United States government as a tribal nation.

Hall’s status meant that when she was earning her degrees, she didn’t qualify for financial assistance designed for Native students. She would not have been eligible for tuition waiver programs instituted in Oregon last year that reduce or eliminate costs for students who belong to federally recognized tribes.

Oregon instituted a statewide tuition waiver program for Native students last year, but it applies only to those from federally recognized tribes. Credit: Don & Melinda Crawford/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

For decades, a handful of individual states and schools have offered financial assistance to Native students. A new wave of offerings this past year – spurred in part by growing land rights movements and a larger focus on racial justice following the murder of George Floyd – shows the programs are becoming increasingly popular.

The programs are meant to help reduce the barrier of cost for Native students, who have historically faced significant challenges in attending and staying in college. Native students have the lowest college-going rate of any group in the United States, a third less than the national average, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. And since 2010, Native enrollment in higher-ed institutions also has declined by about 37 percent, the largest drop in any student demographic group. Studies suggest affordability is one of the leading causes of attrition.

But in nearly every iteration of these programs — old and new — only some Indigenous people benefit.

That’s because the U.S. government does not formally acknowledge the status of an estimated 400 tribes and countless Indigenous individuals, thus shutting them out of programs meant to reduce barriers to higher education. Tribes have to meet several criteria in their petitions for federal recognition, including proof they’ve had decades of a collective identity, generations of descendants and long-standing, autonomous political governance.

As a result, thousands of Native students aren’t getting the same opportunities as their peers in recognized tribes and are left with a disproportionate amount of debt. Affected students say the disparate treatment also leaves social and emotional wounds.

“I made it through it,” Hall said, adding with a laugh that she did most of her dissertation work remotely during Covid, often with her toddler playing around her. “And I would have made it through it better if I had had more support.”

Native students have the lowest college-going rate of any group in the United States, a third less than the national average, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Credit: Shae Hammond for The Hechinger Report

Hall is now paying off about $190,000 in student loans, the cumulative cost of her undergraduate degree from Linfield College in Oregon, her master’s at the University of Arizona and her doctorate from the University of Oregon. A loan forgiveness program through her work will cut her obligation to roughly $50,000, but the total harms her chances of receiving a loan or improving her credit.

Hall’s children, who has Native status because of her father’s enrollment in a recognized tribe, will likely have opportunities Hall did not. If her daughter, for example, a Eugene middle schooler, maintains a 3.0 grade-point average, she will be able to attend the University of Oregon for free.

There are “so many people that are stuck in poverty and stuck in situations where they can’t get an education,” Hall said. “I started thinking … how hard their lives are, and how much of a difference could be made.”

Related: States were adding lessons about Native American history. Then came the anti-CRT movement

Individual schools and states across the country have instituted varying forms of these tuition programs over the years. The University of Maine, for example, has had a tuition waiver option since the 1930s. The program helped the school retain its Native students during the pandemic at higher rates than the national average, according to Marcus Wolf, a university spokesperson. Michigan and Montana have had waivers available for Native students for almost half a century.

Oregon joined this list, beginning with the 2022-23 school year, when then-Gov. Kate Brown announced the introduction of a statewide grant fund. The Oregon Tribal Student Grant covers tuition, housing and books at public institutions and some private universities for undergraduate and graduate students belonging to Oregon’s nine federally recognized tribes. The money is awarded only after students apply for federal or state financial aid.

In its first year, 416 students received the grant, according to Endi Hartigan, a spokesperson for the state’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission. Oregon lawmakers allocated $19 million for the first year — based on an estimate that 700 or more students would receive a grant — and this legislative session, they codified the program in state statute and allocated $24 million for the next two years.

Several state universities – including Western Oregon, Oregon State, Portland State and Southern Oregon – also began providing an additional form of financial aid. Last year, these schools extended in-state tuition prices to members of all 570-plus federally recognized tribes in the U.S., regardless of what state they live in. The same is true for the University of California system, the University of Arizona and other institutions across the country.

The University of Oregon has tried to extend its tuition waiver programs for Native students to at least some members of unrecognized tribes. Credit: Don & Melinda Crawford/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Western Oregon started its Native American Tuition program last fall. It’s been a slow start to get students interested, with public records requests revealing that fewer than 10 students applied for or participated in the program in its inaugural year. However, the impact it has on those students is substantial: The university estimates the program saves participating students nearly $20,000 per student per year.

Anna Hernandez-Hunter, who until June was the director of admissions for Western Oregon, said the numbers are low because the program is new and the university enrolls few students from out of state (only about 19 percent of undergraduates). She said the university has made the application process easier for next year, published more information online and made sure admission counselors are sharing the information with prospective students.

But eligibility for that program, like the vast majority of such tuition offerings, requires enrollment in a federally recognized tribe.

Western Oregon’s Office of the President, as well as communications and admissions officials with the University of Oregon,  declined to comment specifically on why unrecognized tribes are excluded from the programs. One university official said on background that, generally speaking, program staff at any university have to follow federal and state guidelines, as well as standards for who qualifies for the resources.

Institutions typically validate a student’s enrollment by requiring a federally issued tribal ID or a letter from a recognized tribal council confirming enrollment. Native advocates said some students don’t have this kind of documentation even when they are enrolled in a recognized tribe. Documentation depends on the information families can access to prove their lineage. Enrollment requirements differ from tribe to tribe, and after generations of forced removal and assimilation, such documentation can be limited. 

Limiting which Native students get financial assistance is especially significant, given the rising cost of post-secondary degrees. According to the College Board, the average cost of tuition and fees at a public, four-year school was $10,940 for in-state students in 2022-23 or $28,240 for out-of-state students. And research by the Education Data Initiative shows Native students borrow more and pay more per month in student loan debt than their white peers.

Native students have the lowest college-going rate of any group in the United States, a third less than the national average, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Some colleges or states have agreements with specific unrecognized tribes. Oregon, for example, allows members of Washington’s Chinook Indian Nation, which is fighting to regain its federal recognition, to at least access in-state tuition because the Chinook have tribal boundaries in Oregon.

Jason Younker leads the University of Oregon’s Home Flight Scholars Program, which is one of the school’s many assistance programs available for Native students. Launched last October, Home Flight not only works to recruit more Native students to the university but also provides funding, mentors, culturally specific programs and support to help Native students adjust to life on campus.

Younker said students can prove their eligibility for the program by showing a Certificate Degree of Indian Blood card (CDIB) instead of enrollment records. Blood quantum, or the measurement of someone’s “Indian blood,” has a long, controversial history in the U.S. And certificates are only available to people related to members of recognized tribes. But Younker said this allows someone to show they are Native without enrollment records since some tribes’ enrollment requirements exclude those who still have high percentages of Native blood.

Younker, who is part of the Coquille tribe, said the university allows students to show blood quantum via a Certificate Degree of Indian Blood card (CDIB) — which is only available to people related to members of recognized tribes — instead of enrollment records since some tribes’ enrollment requirements exclude those who still have high percentages of Native blood.

Program leaders also allow students, even those from unrecognized tribes, to apply to Home Flight via letters from council members, in an attempt to extend this support to at least some of Oregon’s unrecognized students pursuing undergraduate degrees.

Younker said the question should no longer be: “Can I afford to go to college?” The question should be: “Where can I go to college?”

“Each and every one of us has had an ancestor that sacrificed and survived so that they could have the choices that they do today,” he said. “I always tell students: ‘It doesn’t matter where you go; it matters that you do go.’”

But he said tuition assistance isn’t enough to attract and retain Native American students. To succeed in this, colleges must also recruit on reservations, provide academic counseling, cultural support and a community of peers, and include Native leaders in major decisions at the university. “If you don’t have those kinds of things, you’re not a very attractive school — no matter how much tuition you waive,” he said.

Related: 3 Native American students try to find a home at college

For students and parents like Yvette Perrantes, the lack of support affects multiple generations.

Perrantes wanted to go to college as an adult so she could move into a higher income bracket. She’s a member and leader of the Duwamish Tribe, who lived on the land that is now South Seattle, Renton and Kent, and have been called Seattle’s first people. They’ve fought a decades-long battle for federal recognition that continues today.

Without tribal status and consequent financial aid, Perrantes owed $27,000 in student loans after finishing her associate degree in clean energy technologies at Washington’s Shoreline Community College in 2014. She deferred her loan payments until she no longer could. Threatened with having her wages garnished, she filed for bankruptcy. Her credit score took a hit. She had to keep making payments, but now had no chance of leasing a car, getting a credit card or exercising other opportunities.

Yvette Perrantes is a member and leader of the Duwamish Tribe. They’ve fought a decades-long battle for federal recognition that continues today. Credit: Photo provided by Yvette Perrantes

Her son was looking into college at the same time Perrantes faced these financial hardships. He hoped to receive an athletic scholarship, but when he tore his ACL, the young student-athlete stopped pursuing higher education altogether. In his eyes, Perrantes said, all it would lead to was debt.

The effects of exclusion from federal recognition and benefits are compounded, Perrantes said, for those who come from families, like hers, with intergenerational trauma and parents who are “doing a lot of healing themselves.”

Not “being included in this process with the federal government and not having equal access to student loans and money for education, and more interest rates, you know, everything that comes along with federal recognition,” she said, “it’s pretty crushing to the spirit.”

Perrantes now works as a program manager for Mother Nation, a Seattle-based nonprofit that focuses on cultural services, advocacy, mentorship and homeless prevention for Native women. She worries that students who go out of state for school may be disproportionately denied aspects of their identity. If someone isn’t a recognized tribal member, she said, they aren’t allowed to participate in certain cultural practices such as burning, smudging, harvesting certain trees or having an eagle feather. Those barriers are even more pronounced when the person is from a different state. 

“[H]ow are we going to be educated enough to cite policy, to fight for recognition? We need more Natives who are educated and who are willing to do the work for the people.”

Yvette Perrantes, a member of the Duwamish tribe and a leader on its council

“Being Native and being grounded in your ways, traditionally, and being out of state, outside your family, outside of your tradition, outside of your culture, and then you’re not being able to practice your cultural ways. You know, I think it’s impactful on your emotional, spiritual and mental health,” she said. “We need those to sustain ourselves as students.”

Perrantes still encourages Indigenous students to pursue education at all costs. That way, she said, they can be the ones making laws and the ones teaching their history in the classroom. “The pen is mightier than the sword,” she said. “I know that sounds so cliche, but how are we going to be educated enough to cite policy, to fight for recognition? We need more Natives who are educated and who are willing to do the work for the people.”

As states and institutions expand tuition waiver programs, Hall, the doctoral graduate from the Confederated Tribes of Lower Rogue, would like to see different ways used to verify a claim of being Native and for resources to extend to unrecognized students. Her advice for Native students is to be as stubborn as they can, to believe in themselves and to remember that any kind or any level of education will improve their lives and that of their community.

“We all have some history. We’re survivors. Regardless,” Hall said. Education “is an answer to the prayers of our ancestors, no matter if we’re recognized or not.”

This story about Native American tuition waiver programs was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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