After a private blessing and prayer Tuesday, the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde began demolition at the abandoned Blue Heron Paper Mill at Willamette Falls, representing a small step toward reclaiming the historically and culturally significant site — which was once the spiritual center of their ancestral homelands.
The tribe completed its purchase of the 23-acre property from Washington developer George Heidgerken in 2019 and, earlier this year, shared its vision for a riverwalk and other projects that will restore public access to Willamette Falls, which is the largest waterfall in the western United States by volume, and second in the nation behind Niagra Falls.
The natural treasure — one of the finest in the state of Oregon — has been virtually inaccessible to the public for over 100 years, as various mills and other private interests have managed the resource for commercial purposes.
But before settlers walked the Oregon Trail, it was home to the Charcowah village of the Clowewalla (Willamette band of Tumwaters) and the Kosh-huk-shix Village of Clackamas people, part of the lands ceded to the United States government under the Willamette Valley Treaty of 1855. Following the Willamette Valley Treaty, tribal members were forcibly removed from Willamette Falls and relocated to Grand Ronde.
“This is a special time for our people as we begin our work as stewards of the falls,” Cheryle Kennedy, chairwoman of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, said Tuesday. “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.”
For hundreds of years, tribal members’ ancestors had called this land their home, fishing salmon, eel and lamprey — a prehistoric eel-like creature that has been caught there for thousands of years — from the waters to sustain themselves and their families.
“It’s hard to put into words how important it is,” said tribe vice chair Chris Mercier. “You have to figure that what this looked like 150 years ago is completely different than what it is now. And the fact that we’re going to be able to work with it and tell our story, that’s what’s really important.”
The tribe is planning a 300,000-square-foot mixed-use development that could include educational displays celebrating the history of the tribes and the area, as well hospitality, retail, office and public event space.
First and foremost is restoring the ecology and fixing the riparian habitat for the native fish, birds, and other animals that have long frequented the site — something the tribe received an $800,000 federal grant to assist with in May.
The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, the Willamette Falls Legacy Project and the Willamette Falls Trust (a nonprofit tasked with raising money for the planned riverwalk), are all working together on the project.
The first phase of the riverwalk project is estimated to cost $65 million, with a little less than half that having already been raised in public and private funds. An additional $20 million in public funding was earmarked for the site’s redevelopment as part of the Metro Parks and Nature Bond voters passed in 2019.
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