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News / Sports / Outdoors

Klickitat River Delta a microcosm of Pacific Northwest stakeholder clashes

Conservation, recreation interests collide at key point

By Bill Weiler, Columbia Insight
Published: November 11, 2023, 6:03am
3 Photos
Defiance: Kiteboarders are flying past the law.
Defiance: Kiteboarders are flying past the law. (Photos by Columbia Insight) Photo Gallery

Just east of its origin in Vancouver, state Highway 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 Highway 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.

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.

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.

The parking situation along Highway 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 Klickitat 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 residents, 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.

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.

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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.