PORTLAND — A bold approach to running a land conservation trust payed dividends this week when Oregon dedicated the state's second largest state park, located on the lower John Day River.
Cottonwood Canyon State Park encompasses 8,000 acres, from the river bottom up 1,250-foot canyon walls to wheat fields and wind turbines on the rim. The desert park in Sherman and Gilliam counties had its dedication ceremonies and events from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Wednesday, before opening for business Saturday.
The park is a two-hour drive east of Portland, first east to Biggs on Interstate 84 and then southeast on Oregon 206 to the river between the farm towns of Wasco and Condon. The park is at the only bridge in a 110-mile segment of the river.
State parks' application to manage adjacent federal lands for recreation could, in effect, double the size of the park in the future, making it bigger than Oregon's largest, 9,064-acre Silver Falls State Park.
Land for the new park was purchased by Western Rivers Conservancy, a nonprofit organization founded in 1988 and headquartered in Portland under its current name since 2001. The land that became the park was bought from the cattle ranching Murtha family, which held it since the 1930s.
"Western Rivers completed the purchase in 2008, without having any deal up front with us," said Tim Wood, director of the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department. "They bought it, then came later to sell it to us. It wasn't like they were our agent, which often happens in these kind of transactions."
Typically, a land trust can move quickly when property worth saving comes on the market, but they often want a commitment to resell it to a government entity. That occurred later in this case when state parks paid Western Rivers' purchase price of $7.86 million over three budget cycles. The agency added $5 million in infrastructure development.
The Wyss Foundation of Washington, D.C., provided most of the purchase funding to Western Rivers in an interest-free loan.
"Their vision for the land matched ours," Wood said about Western Rivers' role. "They also did a lot of restoration while they held the title, especially working with kids from Arlington High School."
The result is a park like none other in the Oregon system. Cottonwood Canyon is big, open and wild. This will not be an Oregon coastal campground experience, at least not for a few years until further development brings showers, electricity and cabins to the campground.
When the park opens this week, it will have a 21-site primitive campground and 16 miles of trail for hikers, cyclists and equestrians. The day use area will have a contact center, restroom with water and a picnic shelter. A refurbished barn from the old ranch will offer a unique interpretive center, with views through windows of life on a ranch.
Park visitors will have to be willing to go without phone service in the lower canyon. And it will be hot. Temperatures can nudge triple digits June through August, with the nearest ice will be 15 miles away in Wasco. But the park's opening this week coincides with a pleasant season in the canyon.
The state park crew has begun dealing with the need for shade by planting 16 trees in the campground. The future will bring more.
"They are pretty good size, but it will take a few years for them to offer shade," said Chris Parkins, manager of state park's north-central district. "We planted box elder, choke cherry and hawthorn, species that would have commonly been planted by homesteaders."
Oregonians from the west side of the state may have some adapting and learning to do when they visit Cottonwood Canyon. But one thing is certain: They can expect a warm welcome if they also choose to visit the little towns near the park, including Moro, Fossil, Condon and Shaniko.
"We're really excited to be able to share the rural eastern Oregon experience," said Canda Rattray, president of the Condon Chamber of Commerce. With a population of 706, Condon is the biggest city within 40 miles of Cottonwood Canyon.
"A lot of park visitors don't know that this part of Oregon exists," she added. "It's our job to let them know the mileage into town, should they want to have a steak dinner, and to let them know what else is available out here.
"We live in a beautiful place, with big skies and lots of quiet. But it's a little rustic and rugged, no doubt about that."
The John Day River is one of the most productive rivers in the Columbia River Basin for steelhead fish. With no dams over its 284 miles, except where its last few miles join the Columbia, the river's rehabilitation is a key to rebuilding and keeping viable runs of ocean-going fish.
That's what attracted Western Rivers Conservancy to the landscape — a rare chance to protect and enhance 16 miles of the John Day River.
"I feel so lucky I fell into this kind of work," said Sue Doroff, president of Western Rivers. "It's not everyone who, at the end of the day, feels a real sense of accomplishment."
Doroff has been involved in saving more than 100,000 acres in river corridors in 11 Western states, including the Sandy River that flows off Mount Hood.
When Portland General Electric recently decommissioned two dams on the Sandy, it chose Western Rivers as its partner.
"As we worked to exit the basin," said Julie Keil, PGE's director of hydro licensing, "we brought in Western Rivers to protect the river corridor for its ecological values and to improve public access. We transferred our lands to them, and they were successful in creating long-term protection.
"They focus on their mission and are top-notch at working out technical details. They are really good at what they do."
Bold, too, according to Randy Labbe, president of a Portland food distribution company and board member of The Nature Conservancy in Oregon.
"I really like their style," Labbe said. "They are very entrepreneurial and not afraid to take big risks, which is not always the modus operandi of a land trust.
"They have done a lot of good work by thinking big and taking chances. They also take into consideration how people use the resource, more so than a lot of other land trusts. And they are the only one I know of that focuses on rivers."
Western Rivers has a staff of 16 with a downtown Portland office. The conservancy was founded by Phillip Wallin, who early this year stepped aside to let Doroff take the leading role. Doroff joined the organization in 1991 as the fourth employee and had been groomed for the top job as vice president. Wallin continues on the staff as vice president.
Other Western Rivers successes in Oregon include helping the state acquire land for parks at Munson Creek Falls in the north Coast Range and Luckiamute Landing on the Willamette River. A signature success in Washington was the Hoh River, where the conservancy bought land along the river from a timber company between Olympic National Park and the Pacific Ocean.
Part of the group's funding has come from many Northwest charitable groups, among them the Paul Allen, Autzen and Jubitz Family foundations.
Western Rivers is currently working on, or scouting, other Oregon projects on the Minam, Willamette, North Santiam, West Fork Hood and Umpqua rivers.