Underwood Conservation Dis-trict (UCD) celebrated 75 years of service to both Skamania and Klickitat counties by hosting a tour highlighting just some of the things UCD does to bring natural resources and human communities into better balance.
UCD arranged the tour to cor-respond with a visit from the Washington State Conservation Com-mission. Approximately 40 people attended.
The tour began with a brief history of UCD and the sights on the tour in a conference room at Skamania Lodge in Stevenson.
UCD was founded in 1940 by orchardists and farmers in Under-wood. Its current mission is to “engage landowners and land users throughout Skamania and west Klickitat counties in the conservation, enhancement, and sus-tainable use of natural resources through voluntary stewardship,” which, according to UCD Manager Tova Tillinghast, isn’t far from the UCD’s original mission.
The UCD founders initially met to discuss irrigation needs, forest productivity, and development on their private lands, and how it could affect the soil and water. This meeting would later result in a partnership with the Natural Resource Conservation Service, a federal agency identified at the time as the Soil Conservation Service, which responded to issues like the Dust Bowl in the 1930s.
The tour took guests to multiple project sites to view completed, in- progress, and upcoming projects UCD is conducting and why they are important. The first was a drive-by tour showing where UCD and the Washington Department Natural Resources have cleaned up fallen trees and brush that would act as “fuel” for wildfires near homes.
The second was a viewpoint on Cook-Underwood Road, up the hill from where the 2007 Underwood fire took place. Here guests were able to take photos from the viewpoint while representatives from UCD, Tillinghast, Dan Richardson, and Joyce Eastwick, spoke about the Underwood fire and the importance of the Firewise program which can save homes from igniting and burning down through vegetation management. Dan Richardson is a UCD member in charge of the Firewise program and Joyce Eastwick is a volunteer for the UCD whose home was saved thanks to the Firewise program in the 2007 Underwood fire. In early July, UCD, which is primarily grant funded, ran out of funding for their Firewise program.
The third stop on the tour was of a private property owned by Sally and Paul Newell. Paul Newell is the chair of UCD’s Board of Supervisors. Soon, the Newells property will be a restoration property for Oregon White Oak trees, which are essential habitat for the endangered Western Gray Squirrel. Some of the oak trees on this property are well over 300 years old. The Newells will also grow Ponderosa Pines, which have struggled in the last few years in the area due to an outbreak of the California five-spined beetle.
Fourth stop on the tour was the former location of the Condit Hydroelectric project on the White Salmon River. Todd Olsen, a representative from PacificCorp, the company that owned and decommissioned the Northwestern Dam, spoke about the history of the dam and the relationship between PacificCorp and the public during that process.
“It came down to the fact that multiple times we had tried to build a functional fish ladder to meet state requirements for dams. It just became so expensive to the point where it made more economic sense to blow the dam, which created a natural path for the fish.”
Joe Zendt, a fish biologist for the Yakama Nation, chimed in and said, “Since the demolition of the dam, we’ve seen multiple species of fish return to this part of the river, most notably steelhead trout.”
PacificCorp is waiting for the “all clear” from the permitting agencies like the Federal Energy Regulatory Commision to officially complete this project.
Following along the path of the White Salmon River the fifth stop was at Northwestern Park, formerly part of Northwestern Lake. After the removal of Condit Dam, the lake disappeared, creating an opportunity to get the public involved in a restoration program at the park sponsored by the Yakama Nation. Hundreds of volunteers have planted multiple native plants and created a hiking loop that has become popular with the local cabin owners. The park itself also acts as an outdoor classroom for local schools and summer programs. The park was used as a take-out location for whitewater rafting companies and kayakers, and continues that way since dam demolition.
The sixth stop was along Buck Creek, where UCD will begin working on a project to upgrade an irrigation dam and add a fish screen, as well as work on new piping for water being conveyed to the White Salmon Irrigation District. Currently, the water from Buck Creek goes to about 90 users and covers over 400 acres of pasture and other farm lands.
Last but not least, the final stop was a completed project at Mill Creek. The Mill Creek culvert under Lakeview Road was replaced in 2016 in order to provide fish passage to over four miles of upstream habitat. Mill Creek is the lower most major tributary to the White Salmon River.
Attendees of the tour shared their impressions along the way, and showed enthusiastic support for the work UCD is taking on. For some of the tour guests, this was their first time visiting the Columbia Gorge from other parts of the state.
Tillinghast adds, “Here in the Gorge, we have such beautiful scenery to show off, it’s not difficult to impress people on a tour. We were glad to share some of our accomplishments and challenges, though, too, and I think a lot of folks can see there are some very interesting natural resource issues in our neck of the woods.”