Our charge on the Hood River? Make a classic Northwest river even better for wildlife and people.
Standing high above the Hood River on a 36-inch-wide steel catwalk, Columbia Land Trust Stewardship Lead Kate Conley has to turn sideways to let an angler pass. He apologizes briefly and shuffles on; minutes later we spot him in the river, thigh-deep in water, fly rod in hand. It’s steelhead season, and here and there a few other anglers are laying flies atop the surface. “This river is really well-loved,” Conley says.
From this vantage point, Conley has a 360-degree view of a classic Northwest scene, the sort that defines the Columbia River region here. Below us, the Hood River is perhaps 100 feet wide. Its glacier-fed waters course over smooth rocks and pour around sandy islands and fallen wood, forming the kind of cold, deep pools preferred by steelhead and salmon.
All of this is now Columbia Land Trust’s to care for. Last March Columbia Land Trust accepted ownership of 299 acres of Hood River forestlands and waterfront—a riparian corridor that provides habitat for elk and deer, cougar and black bear, osprey and eagles. Hood River County will own an additional 101 acres at either end of the corridor. Together the parcels encompass 400 acres and include 3.5 miles of the Hood River itself. “It’s a tremendous opportunity and a big responsibility,” says Stewardship Director Ian Sinks, who began working on the project in 2006.
The story of this land is rooted firmly in the area’s relatively recent human history. In 1923, PacifiCorp, then called Pacific Power & Light, constructed the Powerdale Dam and powerhouse on the river, a project designed to deliver electricity to the orchardists and farmers of Hood River Valley. The company also bought the land between the two structures, and built a massive water pipeline that paralleled the river for 3.5 miles.
PacifiCorp had already made plans to decommission the dam when a 2006 flood wrecked part of its pipeline, shutting down power production ahead of schedule. In 2010 the company removed the old dam completely. That means that salmon, steelhead and bull trout are no longer slowed on their upstream journey by a fish ladder. Pacific lamprey, which couldn’t navigate the ladders at all, have access to the river for the first time in nearly a century.
PacifiCorp’s 90 years of land ownership also turned out to have a benefit for nature: It kept the land intact and kept developers at bay. As part of the decommissioning agreement, Columbia Land Trust and Hood River County were identified as the best stewards of the land.
Managing the area to improve and protect wildlife habitat is Columbia Land Trust’s main job. “Every salmonid that migrates to and from the river has to pass through this corridor,” notes Sinks. We also are charged with making sure that people can continue to recreate on the river, and that tribal fishing rights are protected.
The 10-foot-wide pipe that runs beneath the bridge is a good illustration of some of the challenges ahead: Is it possible to remove the pipe and still maintain access for people who want to fish, swim and hike? Those are the sorts of questions Columbia Land Trust is looking to answer with partner groups such as the Hood River Watershed Group, the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs, the local Parks and Recreation District, and with the community of Hood River. As a Hood River resident herself, Conley is glad to take up the challenge. “This really is the town’s backyard,” she says. “It’s an honor to help take care of it.” —Jill Davis