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Another Sacred Site in Danger: Property Owner Fights to Protect Cave

What started as a search for a retirement property has turned into a David vs. Goliath fight to save a sacred site on the Columbia River.
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What started as a search for a retirement property has turned into a David vs. Goliath fight to save a sacred site on the Columbia River for Robert Zornes, an RV-park owner from Forks, Washington.

“I kept seeing this property, 122 acres on more than a mile of the Columbia River for a quarter-million dollars, then it’s lowered to $100,000. And I am thinking, ‘This has to be a practical joke,’ ” Zornes told The Seattle Times in July. He bought the property from a real estate website in 2011.

It wasn’t until later that he realized what he bought—one of the state’s richest spots for history and archaeology. It’s the site of a cave with Indian rock art, burials, petroglyphs and story stones.

NPR recently detailed the rock art of four humanlike figures that are painted in red inside the cave set in a rocky hillside in Wishram, Washington.

Zornes being a history buff has been fighting, along with the Yakama Indian Nation, to save the property and the sacred site.

Bonneville Power Administration already has a 190-foot-tall tower near the cave. It now wants to install a new tower “virtually on top of the cave” according to Zornes. That tower will measure 243 feet tall and will have 22 lines instead of three. It will also have a larger footing and would require blasting to set it into the cliff.

BPA says it wants to use the tower that’s already there.

“It’s much like repaving an old highway; are you better off moving it, or leaving in the same place?” said Larry Bekkedahl, senior vice president for transmission services at BPA, in the July story. “In this case we have chosen using the existing line, because it had lesser impacts than trying to find other routes that would move the line on both sides and have a new river crossing, as well as time delays. So the bottom line is we would reuse the existing line and not relocate it to another location.”

But some disagree.

“This is not just repaving,” Allyson Brooks, Washington’s State Historic Preservation Officer, told The Seattle Times in July. “It is the equivalent of taking a two-lane road and making it a superhighway. It is not the same thing. Maybe in essence, but in size and impact, it is greater.”

Zornes has been fighting the taller tower since he bought the property and explained further what it would do in a comment on the recent NPR story:

“It is a facture type of cave in basalt and BPA will [be] blasting with dynamite a crater 38’ deep and 100’ wide. The cave will be less than 70’ away and just below the blasted area. There is valid concern the cave will be destroyed in the construction process.”

There are similar controversies going on elsewhere like in the Mojave Desert, Killdeer Mountain in North Dakota and many tribes oppose the Keystone pipeline.

“If we can stop Bonneville, it will send a message that these cultural sites are worth protecting,” Zornes told NPR.

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