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March 2, 2024

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Lower White Salmon Coalition releases its long-range vision for White Salmon River corridor

Group focuses on conservation, land ownership, recreation

By , Columbian staff writer
Published:
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The Lower White Salmon Coalition, a collection of local organizations, recently published its 157-page package touching on conservation, landownership and recreation strategies for the titular waterway. The group created the document to serve as guidance during eventual land sales from PacifiCorp, the company that owns 550 acres surrounding the White Salmon River.
The Lower White Salmon Coalition, a collection of local organizations, recently published its 157-page package touching on conservation, landownership and recreation strategies for the titular waterway. The group created the document to serve as guidance during eventual land sales from PacifiCorp, the company that owns 550 acres surrounding the White Salmon River. (Taylor Balkom/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

In October 2011, the ground shuddered as 700 pounds of dynamite exploded Condit Dam to release the White Salmon River from its century of captivity.

As the waterway healed, native plants, wildlife and fish emerged — as did conversations surrounding the land’s future ownership. Now, after years of gathering local consensus, the Lower White Salmon Coalition released its long-range vision for the river corridor’s future, which the group hopes will be used for decision-making in eventual land sales.

“The White Salmon is now open for the return of steelhead and salmon,” said Pat Arnold from Friends of White Salmon River, a group in the coalition. “What happens to this land is very, very critical to that process.”

Condit Dam owner PacifiCorp owns 550 acres hugging the White Salmon River, portions of which it plans to sell. Details surrounding PacifiCorp’s land negotiations are not widely known, hidden by confidentiality agreements.

In 2019, the Yakama Nation won the right of first offer for land for up to 289 acres from the former dam site, which encompasses roughly 55 percent of PacifiCorp’s parcels. Earlier that same year, PacifiCorp posted 39 acres for sale, which were sold to a private developer who converted it into housing. This sale strongly influenced the direction of the Lower White Salmon Coalition’s vision because the parcel included forestland uphill to the river channel that served as important habitat, Arnold said.

Pampi Chowdhury, a PacifiCorp spokesperson, said the company is working with cabin owners and a conservation entity on conveyance for land above the former dam site.

“We do not have a timeline to share,” Chowdhury said in an email. “PacifiCorp and the purchasing parties will continue working on this collectively.”

What’s the plan?

The Lower White Salmon Coalition includes local business owners, residents, conservation groups and white-water guides. Fittingly, the group’s 157-page package touches on and provides supporting documents for conservation, landownership and recreation strategies.

A chief priority in the road map is protecting ecological health. Multiple bullet points outline preserving riparian and forestland habitats, such as protecting heavily used spawning zones or creating a 200-foot buffer for development near shorelines. As recreation trends continue to increase, related infrastructure improvements need to be prioritized to reduce environmental strain, according to the plan.

Coalition members remained in close contact with PacifiCorp during the creation of the vision plan. Although not endorsed by involved agencies, the group shaped its strategies through discussions with Klickitat and Skamania government officials, the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Commission and Yakama Nation. The coalition also surveyed the public to incorporate a range of perspectives on what connects people to the White Salmon.

The National Park Service awarded the Lower White Salmon Coalition a grant through its Rivers, Trails and Conservation Assistance Program to work on the vision plan, which officially began in 2018.

The Lower White Salmon Coalition wrote that its long-range plan will “continue to be relevant to decisions about the future of the unique and precious river,” but the document isn’t required reading for PacifiCorp.

The company isn’t commenting on the plan.

“We will be ready to share more when it is possible to do so,” Chowdhury wrote.

Dam days

A dark contour from Condit Dam’s former grip remains etched in the valley, meters above the now roaring river.

In 1912, the Northwestern Electric Company built the 125-foot-tall dam to power the Crown Columbia Paper Mill in Camas. Operations continued during a time when the state’s demand for electricity was steadily growing. Condit Dam’s turbines generated roughly 12 megawatts, enough to power 9,000 homes for a year, according to PacifiCorp’s dam history.

But since the beginning, the barrier hindered endangered salmon and steelhead. The dam’s wooden fish ladder eroded. The replacement ladder washed out, too, after just a few years.

To Learn More

To review the Lower White Salmon Coalition’s long-range vision plan, visit www.nps.gov/orgs/rtca/upload/Lower-White-Salmon-River-Vision.pdf.

During its existence, Condit Dam blocked White Salmon’s movement about 3 miles upstream from its confluence with the Columbia River, significantly altering fish migration.

In the 1990s, the federal government became increasingly concerned about declining salmon populations. Twelve populations of salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River Basin were listed under the Endangered Species Act.

When PacifiCorp sought an operation license renewal in 1996 through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the agency required the installment of a fish ladder to aid migration. PacifiCorp ultimately decided the renovations needed to meet these standards were too costly, and it instead pursued the dam’s removal.

The White Salmon River’s return to its natural flow was met with both applause and joyful tears. Maintaining this deep connection to the river was at the crux of the Lower White Salmon Coalition’s vision plan, which states, “We hope that our strong consensus around conservation values will help this land and the river to thrive as the restoration of the river continues into the future.”

Community Funded Journalism logo

This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.

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Columbian staff writer