Preserving the past along the Clackamas River
A site that provides gravel for fish habitats along the Clackamas River also has historical significance to multiple Native American tribes.
Spanning 32 square miles, the location near the River Mill Dam was a significant residential area for members of the Warm Springs, Siletz, and Grand Ronde tribes between 7,000 and 8,000 years ago.
"In historic times, everybody wanted to live in a place that's on high ground and close to resources. In those days, resources meant fish, fresh water, rocks and raw materials," said Mini Sharma Ogle, an archaeologist at Portland General Electric. "(The area near River Mill Dam) is a perfect spot. The river is right there, with beautiful salmon and other fish flowing through, and some interesting availability of raw material like rocks and gravel."
Sharma Ogle said that a preliminary assessment found that the archeological site — the exact location of which is confidential — was likely not impacted by the Clackamas County wildfires.
PGE learned about the site in 2001 during their relicensing process with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which allows them to operate hydroelectric projects on the Clackamas River. Archeologists found a variety of stone tools at the prehistoric lithic site.
Sharma Ogle noted that tribes would often move depending on the seasonal ability of the resources that were needed. Based on the types of artifacts found, this site saw more residential activity.
"We've also had instances of histories and oral literature that suggest that these were areas that were invaluable to a lot of tribes," she said, adding that they came for activities like trade or marriage ceremonies. "These types of spaces remain in the minds of the elders, and they know them really well."
Along with the area's cultural significance, it also provides valuable resources for fish in the Clackamas River. Every few years, approximately 28,000 tons of gravel are added to the river bank to enhance what was previously bare bedrock, which creates improved habitats for fish to spawn.
PGE's relicensing agreement with FERC requires a 97% survival rate for fish and the conservation of culturally significant locations.
"What fascinates me about my job is that I get to play this balancing game. We've got the hydroelectric projects, and we need to do them sustainably and reliably. But at the same time, we also have to manage cultural resources. I'm really cognizant of my company's project and how it's going to impact cultural resources, and what that means for our tribes' history and identity," Sharma Ogle said. "We've got to get the gravel out, but it's sitting on this amazing cultural resource site."
An important part of Sharma Ogle's work is ensuring that all of the relevant voices, particularly those of Native American tribes, are included in the conversation about the project.
"The first thing to do is to make sure that people whose history this is are at the table," she said. "The tribes are being consulted with all sincerity. We have an annual meeting with the tribes and our other partners."
If the archaeological site is damaged during the gravel project, PGE is responsible for mitigation of the loss.
"We try to do mitigation in a creative way that's meaningful to the communities that are actually impacted by that resource loss," Sharma Ogle said, noting that mitigation has not yet been required at the River Mill site. "It's their history. We are just temporary caretakers."
She added that possibilities for mitigation work include sharing the relevant history with students, creating booklets for libraries and community engagement meetings about the culture.
"How can we take the history out from there and share it with the larger community?" she said. "One of my personal goals has been to think about meaningful mitigation involving the community, with the ideas that are emanating from the community that is actually experiencing the loss rather than me sitting in this ivory table and saying 'this is what we should do.'"
Sharma Ogle noted that the work on the archeological site encapsulates several of PGE's goals.
"For PGE's position, we're always trying to protect the past while powering the future," she said. "That's really evident in this project."
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