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Eulogy for the Columbia River Gorge

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The most stunning areas of the awesome Columbia River Gorge were destroyed by devastating wild fires on Labor Day weekend. The fire continues to spread. The fire started at, perhaps, the state’s most magnificent hiking trail, which follows Eagle Creek up a narrow canyon with lavish waterfalls, one after the next. Eagle Creek and the surrounding region has, historically, been less susceptible to wildfires because of its designation as a ‘temperate rain forest’.

The gorge is home to the greatest concentration of waterfalls in the country, as snow melt from nearby Mt. Hood flows over the gorge’s great walls. The tallest waterfall in the state, Multnomah falls, is also a top tourist attraction, due to its proximity to Portland and spectacular beauty. Multnomah falls will now flow through a wasteland while its trees rain down as ash on Portland and its suburbs, while a choking smoke grips the region.

When Lewis and Clark mapped out the western states for colonization, they remarked on the peaceful and unique indigenous tribes they encountered in the Columbia River Gorge, such as the the Nez Perce, Umatilla, Warm Springs and Yakama. The settlers who followed on the Oregon Trail faced stiff resistance in their attempts to grab the native’s homeland, sparking Oregon’s Indian Wars that raged until federal troops decimated all warring tribes. Oregon’s most famous indigenous figure, Chief Joseph, was a refugee from these wars; he led his band of Nez Perce in battle and later retreated: the remaining tribe’s long march attempted to cross the border into Canada for political asylum. Federal troops followed, captured, and funneled the tribe into a consolidated reservation.

Decades later the Gorge tribes faced another trauma, when the source of their ancestral existence, the river, was ravaged, after a series of dams were erected that decimated the colossal salmon migration and flooded sacred fishing areas, such as Celilo Falls.

It took the largest concrete structure ever built, the Grand Coulee dam, to tame the mighty Columbia. Upon completion the Grand Coulee was used to power the industrial plants that produced the tens of thousands of warplanes that firebombed Tokyo, Dresden, and other cities that fell victim to U.S. war crimes during WWII. In Tokyo alone 100,000 people died from the napalm bombs.

It’s clear that the scale of the current fire is directly related to climate change, since Oregon’s “moderate summers” have transformed into insufferable heat, weakening the forest and allowing the fire to spread faster. If most climate scientists are correct (and it appears they are) the region may be permanently altered, as winters are expected to be wetter and summers hotter and drier, preventing the flora from re-establishing itself as the Gorge is ingloriously added to Oregon’s ever-growing regions of ‘fire threats’.

The gorge is survived by its indigenous family, and by all those who deeply appreciated its sacredness.

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Shamus Cooke is a social service worker, trade unionist, and writer for Workers Action (www.workerscompass.org). He can be reached at shamuscooke@gmail.com

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