Federal funds boost Grand Ronde tribe’s push to clean up Willamette Falls

By Monica Samayoa (OPB)
May 13, 2021 12:25 a.m.
Trees flank a broad river with wide cascading waterfalls in the middle.

Willamette Falls from the site of the former Blue Heron Paper Mill.

Lucila Cejas Epple / OPB

The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde has received nearly a million-dollar federal grant to boost the environmental restoration of Oregon City’s Willamette Falls.


The Environmental Protection Agency awarded the tribe $800,000 Wednesday to begin environmental cleanup at the former Blue Heron paper mill site. The money will be used to identify and test for hazardous substances and for decommissioning underground storage tanks.

The tribe purchased the 23-acre site in 2019. It holds significant historical and cultural importance for the Grand Ronde and is the ancestral homelands of the Charcowah Village of the Clowewalla people. The falls is also the second-largest waterfall by volume in the nation.

Chairwoman Cheryle Kennedy said the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde has been working on conceptual designs since purchasing the site to allow for public access and restoration. Its goal is to complete designs by the end of the year.


“This grant will help us to move along that progress of returning the native plants, the ways of fishing here, the materials that we used to gather to use in our basketing making and developing our nets, all of those materials were here,” she said. “So, we will work to restore that and to reconnect to the land here.”

Since the purchasing of the falls, the Grand Ronde tribes, along with a collaborative partnership between Oregon City, Clackamas County, the Metro government agency and the state of Oregon, have been working on the Willamette Falls Legacy Project. The goal: to restore the area and create public access to the site.

“We were the original keepers of the falls. We welcome other tribes, other people to come and fish with us to potlatch with us, to come and visit us,” Kennedy said. “That’s always been a part of our culture, to be welcoming to look at other folks and to say, ‘We do have a source of wealth here,’ and our duty and our responsibility is to share that resource.”

The tribe has been working with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality to safely restore the area and remove contamination.

Two people in the foreground watch a boat as it travels across a river.

Grand Ronde Tribal Chairwoman Cheryle Kennedy and Tribal Secretary Jon A. George watch as tribal employees launch a boat to build a fishing platform at Willamette Falls.

Cassandra Profita/OPB / EarthFix

DEQ Director Richard Whitman said that when the tribe first approached the agency with questions about how to safely clean up, the DEQ created a team to help identify necessary actions “in order to restore and heal that place and make it suitable for future uses.”

The EPA grant requires that the tribe hold at least five public engagement sessions.

The Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians and the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation are also providing input towards the Legacy Project.


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