Community Forest on the East Moraine

On Saturday, I made the hike up the west-side trail on the East Moraine of Wallowa Lake. This is a piece of land that the Wallowa Land Trust has worked very hard over many years to keep away from developers. Slowly—over the years, and with the support of the County Commissioners, the Oregon State Park, and Wallowa Resources, Land Trust director Kathleen Ackley and her staff have pulled together easements and ownership to get this marvelous piece of geological, geographical, and tribal heritage land into a “community partnership” of owners and minders.

It’s called the “East Moraine Community Forest,” and the development of its management plan, shepherded by the Land Trust, includes the Nez Perce Tribe. On Saturday, Nakia Williamson, Cultural Resources Program Director for the Tribe, accompanied about 20 of us on the moraine hike. We stopped midway and at the top and Nakia told us about the importance of “The Lake.” What we call Wallowa Lake was so culturally and spiritually important to the local wal?wá ma band of Nez Perce, and to other bands who gathered in summer to harvest the sockeye salmon, that it was just called “The Lake”—iwé tem in the Nez Perce language.

Those of us privileged to live close to it now can understand. In my half century here, I’ve fished in it a few times, skated on it more than I’ve fished, watched children and grandchildren learn to swim in it, and now make swimming in it every possible day part of my summer. I can see the East Moraine from my home in Joseph, and I can summon the sight of iwé tem from here—and from anywhere else in the world where I find myself thinking about home,

The story of the sockeye salmon is, to this point, a sad tale. How the early settler scooped them out of the Lake with horse-drawn seines and built dams and canals for irrigation, not knowing or caring that the sockeye needed this Lake to rest in and mature in on their journeys to and from the sea and their upriver spawning grounds. Now, with the upper dimensions of the dam condemned, and with money almost in place to rebuild it, the issue of sockeye passage is in the middle of things: To “trap and haul,” or to build a fish ladder. Nez Perce Tribal Chair Shannon Wheeler, in a June column in the Wallowa County Chieftain, said that the law says that fish need passage on their own “volition,” on their own power. That would mean a fish ladder and not trap and haul, in my understanding of words.

I don’t know where this sits now, don’t even know who all of the players are. There is the local irrigation district, and then Nez Perce Fisheries, Umatilla Fisheries, adjacent private land owners, state and national rules and funding. And—the people of Wallowa County and Nez Perce and related Tribal members on reservations in Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. Maybe others. And I guess you can add the thousands of visitors each year who come to stay at or by, to swim, row, or fish in iwé tem.

I do know that this is an opportunity to do something right, to right a wrong done over 100 years ago to the fish and its signature home, the iwé tem.

Nakia talked about Nez Perce bands gathering in July, fishing, and using higher grounds for gathering medicinal and food plants and for spiritual quests, finally leaving to harvest huckleberries on their trails to wintering grounds on the Grande Ronde, the Imnaha, and their tributaries. The theme that he returned to on several occasions was that of oneness, the idea that the Lake, the sockeye, the plants and animals that make the moraine home, and what we call “nature” all around us is not separate from us. These things cannot, in the Nez Perce cosmology, be owned. In the Native view, we’re all brothers and sisters, members of the same family of life. The idea of “ownership” is a foreign one, but one, Nakia admitted, modern Nez Perce have had to adapt to and use as they have accepted the donations of land and made land purchases themselves.

The idea of the “East Moraine Community Forest,” the idea that this hunk of sacred ground, and its glacier-carved iwé tem, are in a combined stewardship that mimics the ancient pre-settler relationships of lands, waters, and the humans and sister creatures and plants that share in it, is a comforting one.

I hope that we can all gather around the “all of it,” and embrace it into the future.

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Image curtesy Wallowa Land Trust. Photographer Leon Werdinger, Our hike was at the right of the image, through the trees and to the crest of the moraine. The West Moraine, not as flat-topped as the East, is clearly visible, and one can imagine water and boulders spilling over the Terminal Moraine and into what is now Joseph at the bottom of the photo, Near my swimming beach at the far left!

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