RICHLAND – Some 12,000 years after the floodwaters crashed over Dry Falls and carved through the Wallula Gap, about 40 people gathered at the base of Badger Mountain in Richland on Wednesday to celebrate the creation of the Ice Age Floods National Geologic Trail.
“This has been called the greatest story left untold,” said Gary Kleinknecht, president of the Ice Ages Floods Institute.
The trail, which tracks the path of multiple massive floods dating from the end of the latest Ice Age, reaches 500 miles from Western Montana to the Pacific Ocean.
The hydraulic power was unleashed when a 1,000-foot-high ice dam on the Clark Fork River broke, sending 600 cubic miles of water in a rush across Eastern and central Washington. Much of the dry landscape and scablands of today are what was left behind.
“The trail is a string of pearls,” said Kevin Dunbar, chief of planning for the National Park Service’s Seattle office, who was one of the speakers.
He said the Tri-Cities was on that string that reaches from Missoula to Astoria, Ore. Other pearls include Missoula, where the floodwaters’ source, glacial Lake Missoula, was held in by an ice dam; the 400-foot-high cataract called Dry Falls 20 miles southwest of Grand Coulee Dam; the Hanford Reach in the Tri-Cities; and the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in Portland, which will have Ice Age Floods displays.
The Ice Age Floods trail becomes one of many other famous national trails in the National Park Service, such as the Santa Fe Trail, the Old Spanish Trail, and the Trail of Tears, Dunbar noted.
But it is the first of its kind, he said.
Wednesday’s celebration paid homage to J. Harlen Bretz, a geologist who in the 1920s first observed that Eastern Washington’s landscape looked like it was flood-formed.
Largely ridiculed for the idea, Bretz spent nearly half a century defending his theory, which eventually earned him geology’s highest professional honor – the Penrose Medal of Honor.
Dunbar said the park service will spend two years developing a plan, working closely with the Ice Age Floods Institute, communities, geologists and interpretive specialists to design the trail’s educational components.
In addition to interpretive centers, scenic overlooks, displays and roadside signs, the trail will use new communication technologies such as webcasting, iPods and global positioning satellites to enhance what will be available as people drive the trail and its many side loops.
“We will start the plan in earnest in 2010,” Dunbar said. But the park service will begin immediately to establish an Ice Age Floods Trail office with a staff of four. It might be in the Tri-Cities, he said.
“We know this is a great day for the state of Washington,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., whose legislation creating the trail was passed by Congress on March 25.
Cantwell, who first introduced an Ice Age Floods trail bill in 2002, is on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
“Our region’s ice age flood legacy is etched all over the Pacific Northwest, and this trail will serve as a valuable learning tool to educate Americans on our unique geological history as well as boost local tourism,” the senator said in a prepared statement.
Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., credited the Ice Age Floods Institute and Kleinknecht for working for nearly a decade to win congressional approval.
“This had broad support (in the Senate and House),” said Hastings, the ranking Republican member of the House Natural Resources Committee.
Congress authorized $12 million to get the trail established, and about $600,000 a year for operational expenses, Dunbar said.
Kris Watkins, president and CEO for the Tri-Cities Visitor and Convention Bureau, said the national trail will be an ecotourism magnet for the Northwest with potential for national and international play. “It took true leadership to get this accomplished. It took a decade of work by the Ice Age Floods Institute. The ‘floodies,’ as we know them, put in countless hours,” she said.
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