The Columbia River Gorge is one of Oregon’s most important natural resources. The river is home to salmon and steelhead trout that feed Oregonians, recreational activities like wind surfing and swimming that support local economies, and tribal nations that shape the Columbia River basin’s past, present and future. Clean water is essential to the long-term health and viability of our state and region.
Since 2000, Columbia Riverkeeper has worked to preserve this vital resource by bringing volunteers together to monitor water quality, clean and restore waterfront areas, and advocate to protect the river. Columbia Riverkeeper also regularly works with tribal nations in the area and builds coalitions of like-minded organizations and individuals. According to Paul Blackburn, mayor of Hood River, Columbia Riverkeeper is “a valuable ally in leading this community.”
In 2015, Columbia Riverkeeper was awarded a conservation easement for Nichols Natural Area, a three-acre piece of land along the Columbia in Hood River. For nearly 60 years, the land was home to Nichols Boat Works, a boat yard that became neglected and overgrown with invasive plants. Instead of turning the land over to a private company to restore, the organization engaged the Hood River community in conservation plans in three main areas:
  1. Education. Make the land a living laboratory to engage students in environmental education.
  2. Restoration. Invite volunteers and community input to restore the riparian (waterfront) habitat.
  3. Inclusion. Engage diverse community members through outreach, education and bilingual programs.
Conoce tu Columbia
In 2017, Columbia Riverkeeper hired community organizer Ubaldo Hernández to engage the Latino community — about a quarter of the Hood River population — in the Nichols Natural Area restoration. Ubaldo knows the community well through his long history of volunteering and community involvement and as host of his mostly Spanish radio show, “Conoce tu Columbia” (“Know Your Columbia”), which airs on Radio Tierra.
One of his first tasks was to help develop a leadership team to guide the plans for Nichols Natural Area. Ubaldo credits one-on-one conversations as the most important engagement tool, noting that relationship-building is a two-way street.
Ubaldo works to understand residents’ concerns and to “care about people as people.” It’s a time-consuming investment, but it pays off in strong relationships that frequently result in people asking, “How can I get involved?”
Student involvement
Students also play a critical role. Since January 2018, 800 students of all ages have helped restore Nichols Natural Area by removing invasive plants, planting new trees, spreading mulch, testing water temperature and quality, and participating in educational activities.
The waterfront location has become a living laboratory where students learn about water quality and riparian habitats. Role-playing turns students into black-crowned night herons looking for a place to build a nest.
Hood River Middle School science teacher Adam Smith said that this game is “a great way to talk to the kids about how as we develop and change the landscape we live in, we have to be thoughtful about the animals and people who are there.”
A falls too close
Susan Arechaga, a science teacher at Wy’east Middle School, found that the experience helped her students activate their classroom learning. Wy’east is a high-poverty school that has a large migrant student population. Arechaga tells a story of showing her students a video featuring Multnomah Falls, a popular landmark in Columbia Gorge.
To her surprise, most of the students could not identify it because they had never had an opportunity to visit. In an effort to make the abstract concrete, they visited Nichols Natural Area to connect classroom learning to actual experience.
“When we’re back in the classroom, they can connect what we’re learning to something they saw, touched and were physically a part of,” she said.
Columbia Riverkeeper engages students as volunteer scientists. They help to capture how Nichols Natural Area is changing by taking photos that can be uploaded to Digital Earth Watch, a website supported by NASA, where they can be monitored for environmental changes.
Arechaga notes that this real-world experience showed students how they can be part of making a difference.
“An experience like that changes how kids perceive what learning science is about. It’s us, it’s here, it’s now. You see kids’ faces lighting up,” she said.
Columbia Riverkeeper identifies several factors in a successful school partnership:
  1. Curriculum alignment. Ahead of each visit to Nichols Natural Area, Hernandez meets with teachers to determine the best way to use field trips to support classroom learning. Then, he visits classrooms and delivers lessons to prepare students for the experience.
  2. Eliminating financial and logistical barriers. Columbia Riverkeeper makes an effort to lower logistical and financial barriers. In many cases, Columbia Riverkeeper’s ability to pay for buses to transport students is key to facilitating school participation. In Smith’s words, “As a teacher, I do a lot of cost-benefit analysis. There are only so many hours in the day. If I put time into planning for something, I want to make sure that it will have enough payoff. I definitely think there is for this opportunity.”
  3. Mentorship and role modeling. Hernandez is a role model for the many Latino students who visit Nichols Natural Area. In the Hood River County School District, more than 40 percent of students are Latino, compared to only 3 percent of teachers and staff (Oregon Department of Education, 2017–18). Hernandez notes that Latino students often speak to him in Spanish even when they understand the lessons he delivers in English.
Latino students also ask about his career path and how he ended up at Columbia Riverkeeper. Relationships with adult role models who reflect students’ racial or ethnic background and experience can help students form positive racial identities that contribute to more positive attitudes toward school and, eventually, to increased educational attainment (Kipp, Ruffenach & Janssen).

Smith and Arechaga understand that Columbia Riverkeeper is building connections between students and the environment through their educational programs. When students feel a connection to a place, they want to show their parents, siblings and friends. They take pride in the tree they planted, the mulch they spread or where they thought the night heron should build its nest. It changes how children think about their community and then, said Arechaga, “In the future, it changes how the community treats and looks at areas of the environment.”
Oregon Community Foundation (OCF) puts donated money to work in Oregon —  more than $100 million in grants and scholarships annually. For nearly 45 years, OCF grantmaking, research, advocacy and community-advised solutions have helped individuals, families, businesses and organizations create charitable funds to improve lives for all Oregonians. Impactful giving — time, talent and resources from many generous Oregonians — creates measurable change.
Columbia Riverkeeper is located at 407 Portway Ave., Suite 301, Hood River. For more information, call the office at 541-387-3030.

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