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Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde launches effort to restore its land at Willamette Falls habitat site for native fish

PMG PHOTO: JAELEN OGADHOH - Members of the Oregon City Commission pose alongside members of the Grand Ronde Tribal Council in front of the demolition site.Tribal leaders and council members from the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde gathered alongside members of the Oregon City Commission on Tuesday to commemorate the first day of on-site demolition work at the former Blue Heron paper mill.

The private event marked the beginning of a large-scale environmental restoration project in the works since Grand Ronde acquired the 23-acre site in 2019. Since then, the tribe has been developing remediation plans for the culturally significant land with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, sharing the final renderings of its vision in March.

"This is a special time for our people as we begin our work as stewards of the falls," Grand Ronde Chair Cheryle A. Kennedy said. "We are excited to begin the healing process for this land as well as take the first steps towards real progress in bringing our vision for this site to life."COURTESY RENDERING: GRAND RONDE TRIBE - A perspective sketch from the lagoon above Willamette Falls looks north across a section of the former paper-mill site proposed for removal and riverbank restoration.

Restoration efforts will focus on re-establishing native plants and restoring the habitat for native fish, birds and other wildlife in the natural basalt landscape and water channels underneath the defunct industrial buildings.

Grand Ronde comprises over 30 tribes and bands from western Oregon, northern California and southwest Washington. The group envisions a mixed-use development at the northern end of the property that could include spaces for offices, hospitality and education as well as tribal spaces, public gathering spots, restaurants, retail, and public access to Willamette Falls. The tribe has designed all new developments to visually and physically connect to the restored landscape.

Tuesday's event kicked off with a prayer conducted by tribal leaders to bless the land and the demolition workers, followed by a ceremonial song and drum performance.PMG PHOTO: JAELEN OGADHOH - Tribal leaders from the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde conduct a ceremonial performance with drumming and singing prior to building demolition at Willamette Falls.

"Ten years ago, if you had told me that we would own this property here, I'm not sure I would have believed you," Grand Ronde Vice Chair Chris Mercier said on Tuesday following the prayer and performance.

"This site here is of deep historical and cultural significance," he continued, calling the chance to restore it "a dream come true" for the tribe. "Our goal of reclaiming all our lands is going to take a while, but we're doing it bit by bit and this is this is kind of like the crown jewel."COURTESY RENDERING: GRAND RONDE TRIBE - The vision for the future Blue Heron campus includes a mixed-use area near downtown Oregon City.

Partial funding for the restoration project comes from the Environmental Protection Agency's Brownfields Grant Program, which awarded the tribe $800,000 in May for the assessment and cleanup of the property.

"Getting to see actual demolition begin on-site was so exciting, after 10 long years of discussion since the paper mill closed," Mercier said. "We've been working hard towards this goal since acquiring the property and are proud to see the tangible impact begin. This is a major step forward for the project and to reintroducing the general public to this special place."

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