Re-thinking the Unthinkable: Restore Celilo Falls

Fight climate change and create sustainable jobs in the Columbia Gorge

By Sean Aaron Cruz

Portland, Oregon—

Coal export proponents are touting job creation in their campaigns to turn the Columbia River Gorge into an internationalized industrial corridor, bracketed with coal export terminals to the east and west, lined with mile-long coal and oil trains on both north and south banks, and the Columbia River itself choked with coal barges.

That is their vision of the future of the Gorge and the region, their vision of our collective futures, their vision of our great great great grandchildren’s futures, and they have the money and the political power to force this upon us.  

By “they”, I mean the coalition of largely foreign corporations and nations who can supply the limitless funds, and the local chapters of trade unions who are fighting for jobs—any jobs—they can get for their membership. The television ads and other media buys they are running are all focused on job creation; that’s the story they are selling to the public and policy makers. There aren’t any other positive spins to their argument.

It is the job creation argument that is splitting the city of Longview into two opposing color-coded factions: the Red Shirts oppose the terminals, the Blue Shirts want the jobs.

Coal export opponents have an alternate vision for the future of the Columbia Gorge, but have yet to muster a job creation argument to support that future, a major weakness in the anti-coal coalition’s campaign.

In order to counter or neutralize trade union support for the coal export proposals, the anti-coal coalition must develop a strategy that creates new construction and permanent jobs. It is not enough to be against coal; in order to win this key part of the argument, the coalition must find a way to build something new, something that is sustainable and employs people in family-wage jobs.

Ideally, these would be jobs that would benefit those who are living and raising their families in the Columbia Gorge itself.

There can be no better time than now, then, to Re-think the Unthinkable, the flooding of Celilo Falls, and consider what could happen in the Columbia River Gorge were the great salmon fishery brought back to life.

It could mean thousands of new construction and permanent jobs, the re-creation of an economy that thrived for thousands of years; and a transformation of the Gorge itself.

The following article appeared in The Dalles Chronicle in June.

Salmon fishing at Celilo Falls

Group Hopes To Restore Celilo Falls

By Neita Cecil

The Dalles Chronicle

As of Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Dalles — A new non-profit group has lofty goals: to permanently lower the Columbia River, restoring Celilo Falls and its native fishery; and reconnecting Celilo Village to the river by rerouting the nearby rail lines and freeway to Washington.

Sean Cruz is the spokesman for Friends of Celilo Falls, and he’s pitched his vision to the Columbia River Gorge Commission.

Cruz, of Portland, was once a legislative staffer in Salem, and was on the Senate floor when a resolution was passed in 2007, mourning the flooding of Celilo Falls in 1956 as a consequence of the construction of The Dalles Dam.

“I was there when we heard the tribes tell the story of the falls and how devastating this was to the people,” he said. “The deep trauma to the native people that flooding the falls caused, that continues to this day.”

“Prior to 1850, both banks of the Columbia River were lined with Indian villages, the entire length of the river. But today, there’s only one Indian village left, only one. And that’s how strong the connection to Celilo Falls is for the native people,” he said.

Now the village is cut off from the river by two rail lines and Interstate 84.

Cruz said commenters on the Senate floor that day said, “To flood Celilo Falls today, if the falls had not already been flooded, it would’ve been unthinkable. That was the word that was used. Unthinkable. If the falls were there today, who would think about flooding them? Just to get barges past them. Are you joking?”

Barging interests countered that the permanent lowering of the river was unthinkable. (See related story A1)

Cruz said, “A lot of people believe that Celilo Falls are gone forever, lost forever, or the only way the falls can come back is to take down the dam at The Dalles, but that’s not true.”

While barging as a mode of transportation is more economical than rail or truck, Cruz argued that the public infrastructure required for barging nullifies that efficiency.

“Barging on the Columbia has never been an economically feasible way of moving freight,” he said. “It has always required massive public subsidies. Massive. As a matter of fact, we’re into the billions of dollars of subsidies now.”

Just a few years ago, three lock gates on regional river systems were replaced at a cost of $50 million, he said. “About the only business that goes through those lock gates is the average of three barge tows a day,” Cruz said. “So it’s a direct benefit to a very small group of shippers.”

Meanwhile, the slack water needed for barging negatively impacts fish, he said, and the public will pay $1.675 billion for salmon recovery efforts over the next decade.

“There’s no other place in the world like it, like Celilo Falls, so why is it 40 feet underwater?” he said.

His group envisions a walking trail the length of the Columbia River; excursion boats that trawl multiple stops from Portland on upriver; and an electric passenger excursion train that takes passengers from new hotels on the plateau beyond Maryhill to a viewing point of the falls at Wishram, then on into The Dalles.

A section of Interstate 84 and the rail lines that now go past Celilo Village, east of The Dalles, would be rerouted into Washington at The Dalles, and then come back into Oregon about 15 miles east — past Biggs and Maryhill, Cruz envisions.

His organization plans to create computerized 3D models of their vision. He said millions of people worldwide would share his interest in revealing Celilo Falls. It is just a matter of educating them and harnessing their voice.

He said information is already available on the Internet about Celilo Falls, such as a YouTube video by the Army Corps of Engineers showing Celilo Falls in its glory, before it was inundated over the course of six hours when the dam became operational.

Celilo Falls 1956:

“We want to educate people that this has to be protected, and it has to be protected forever,” he said.

He likened the effort to the decision made in the 1960s by Oregon’s then governor to make Oregon’s beaches publicly accessible. Restoring Celilo Falls is “more complicated” he said, “but again, we’re looking at a resource like Oregon beaches that are just as valuable in terms of geology. Lay on top of that cultural and archaeological values.”

As for funding relocation of the highway and rail lines, Cruz said “there’s prioritized federal funding for multimodal bridges and highways in rural areas.”

The restored falls would become a working fishery once again, and Cruz wants them to come under “the permanent stewardship of the Columbia River treaty tribes.”

But, unlike before, no non-tribal members would be allowed on the fishing grounds.

Rather, they would be able to see the falls from Wishram, which is directly across the river from the submerged falls, or from the still-intact railroad bridge just 400 yards or so upriver from the falls, or perhaps from a new viewing area created on Fifteenmile Road.

He said the public would be kept away from the falls because they’re so dangerous. When the falls were exposed, “the water comes past these fishers like it’s blasted out of a cannon. That’s how dangerous it is. Every year people drowned. All the more reason why controlling public access is vital,” he said.

A lowered river would expose archaeological sites, which would require fencing off and monitoring. Cruz said that work would create significant ongoing employment opportunities.

“That’s a vast archaeological area out there, both sides of the river, everything east of The Dalles Dam, out past Maryhill. The people lived there for thousands of years. They didn’t live in just one place. There’s burial sites, sacred sites.”


Find us on Facebook: The Friends of Celilo Falls

About 1000nations

Sean Aaron Cruz is Executive Director of 1000 Nations and a co-founder of The Friends of Celilo Falls. He is the organizer of the Jim Pepper Native Arts Festival. He is co-author of Winona LaDuke's new book, "The Militarization of Indian Country." He is the father of four children who disappeared into Utah in a Mormon abduction in 1996, and the author of Oregon's landmark anti-kidnapping statute "Aaron's Law" (Senate Bill 1041), named for his late son Aaron Cruz. He writes online as Blogolitical Sean.
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