The Willamette Falls on August 6, 2018. Photo: Chas Hundley

The Oregon House of Representatives passed a bill with a 54-3 vote creating the Willamette Falls Locks Authority, a public corporation establishing ownership, management, and oversight so the waterfall’s locks could someday reopen for the first time since 2011.

House Bill 2564, passed Tuesday, May 11, is the result of nearly a decade of economic compromise, and engineering reports, as well as a working partnership with the Army Corps. of Engineers, said Rep. Mark Meek (D-Oregon City), whose district includes the locks.

Meek is one of the chief sponsors of the bill, along with Rep. Rick Lewis (R-Silverton), Rep. Jeff Reardon (D-Happy Valley), and Rep. Rachel Prusak (D-Tualatin). 

It’s the first forward movement toward having the locks operational since they closed in 2011. HB 2564 passed by a 54-3 vote (the three “nay” voters, all Republicans, were Lily Morgan (R-Grants Pass); Rep. Daniel Bonham (R-The Dalles); and Rep. Kim Wallan (R-Medford). 

“A public corporation will be able to operate in an entrepreneurial manner while still being accountable to the public and will ensure the locks remain a public asset to be used and enjoyed by all Oregonians,” Meek said.

A press release issued by Oregon House Democrats says the legislative concept of creating a public corporation is to oversee the repairs, maintenance, upgrades, and operation of the Willamette Falls Locks project, and associated 23-acres of properties and facilities for commercial, transportation, recreational, cultural, historic, heritage, and tourism purposes.

Republican House Minority Leader Christine Drazan (R-Canby) voted in favor of HB 2564, as did every GOP member except for the three aforementioned lawmakers. 

Additionally, three Republicans excused themselves from voting -- Rep. Mike Nearman (R-Independence), who is facing two misdemeanor criminal charges for providing demonstrators access to entry into Oregon’s Capitol, closed over coronavirus concerns, through a backdoor during a one-day special legislative assembly in December 2020. The other two representatives, Rep. Bobby Levy (R-Echo) and Rep. John Lively (D-Springfield) did not release a statement as to why they voted against HB 2564. 

The press release from Oregon House Democrats doesn’t mention Willamette Falls Trust, a nonprofit organization that during the past several years raised money to create the so-called Riverwalk, a series of winding promenades and lofted pathways along the Willamette River that would provide visitors of any age an intimate experience on the river near the foot of Willamette Falls, which is the second-largest waterfall by volume in the U.S. 

The Willamette Falls Trust website says demolition, construction, and renovations will take place during “the next few decades... including the new downtown district at the long-closed Blue Heron Paper Mill site."

In May 2020, Willamette Falls Trust announced plans to partner with Boston-based MASS Design Group, a team of more than 140 architects, landscape engineers, builders, furniture designers, writers, filmmakers, and researchers, all of whom come from more than 20 countries.

Additionally, the press release does not mention the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde who, just days ago on April 29, 2021, formally announced their withdrawal from the Willamette Falls Trust. 

Willamette Falls is a sacred site with deep cultural significance to tribes of the Pacific Northwest. The Grand Ronde Tribal Council on April 22 sent a letter to the Willamette Falls Trust notifying its board of directors of its formal intention to withdraw from the inter-tribal and inter-governmental agency. 

The tribal council, which purchased the dilapidated Blue Heron Paper Mill that precariously continues to decay on the cliffs surrounding Willamette Falls, provided its reasons for pulling out of the project -- the council refused to sign a confidentiality agreement and later was barred from attending a meeting because of its decision to not sign the agreement.

The letter sent by the Grand Ronde Tribal Council, obtained by the Banks Post, said the insulting and harmful practices of the Willamette Falls Trust do not demonstrate even the slightest sign of transparency or accountability.

“The Trust regularly sends out public communications mentioning the Tribe’s work at Willamette Falls without prior notice, permission, or coordination,” the letter says. “However, when the Tribe provides the Trust with important studies or information, that information is not given due consideration and is often ignored or dismissed. The Trust’s repeated communication failures became the norm and not the exception in our relationship.”

Immediately after the Grand Ronde’s letter reached Willamette Falls Trust, another letter from the leaders of the other four federally recognized tribes involved in the Trust—Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation,  Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs—arrived, announcing its support for the Trust as future project partners. 

HB 2564 now moves on to the Oregon Senate for hearings, debate, and consideration.