This Way through Oregon

The flow of salmon, waste, traffic, and laws

Like all places, Oregon has a brand, an identity that distinguishes it from other places. This identity is a pastiche of characteristics—environmental and agricultural, urban and rural, intrepid and entrepreneurial—that become a kind of shorthand that, rightly or wrongly, insiders and outsiders read to understand what this state and its people collectively value. But how much do we, the residents of this place, really know about the systems behind these things that seem to represent our identity?

On the pages that follow, we look more closely at just four of these cultural identifiers and how they move through their individual systems: coho salmon up the Columbia River past historical sites; trash, recyclables, reusables, and compost from Portland to other parts of the state and the world; bicycles, buses, and cars up a busy corridor through a rapidly changing neighborhood; and ideas, measures, and laws through what is sometimes called the Oregon System.

Salmon up the Columbia River


After spending sixteen to twenty months at sea, a coho salmon begins her journey up the Columbia and Sandy Rivers back to her natal spawning grounds. This amazing biological phenomenon is also rich with cultural significance, and the landmarks she passes upstream mark the politics and history of her species.

  1. Salmon were central to the Chinook that once inhabited villages along the lower Columbia, and seining was the most important method used to catch the fish. As runs declined in the early twentieth century, white fishermen drove the Chinook off Sand Island and Peacock Spit, two of the most productive seining areas in the estuary. Seining was prohibited by Washington in 1934 and Oregon in 1948.

  2. On March 16, 1806, Meriwether Lewis drew and described a fish brought to him at Fort Clatsop: “The white Salmon Trout ... has now made it's appearance in the creeks near this place. one of them was brought us today by an Indian who had just taken it with his gig. this is a likness of it.” The fish was later classified as coho salmon, Oncorhynchus kisutch.

  3. In 1866, the brothers George W. and William Hume and Andrew S. Hapgood established a salmon cannery at Eagle Cliff, Washington, packing 4,000 cases their first year. In 1895, up to 50 Columbia canneries produced 635,000 cases of salmon. But by 1977, the pack was just 2,547 cases. The last major cannery on the Columbia closed in 1980.

  4. On November 5, 1805, Lewis and Clark recorded a visit to the “Quathapotle Nation,” one of the largest Chinookan villages the expedition encountered. Today, Cathlapotle is an archeological site and the home of a modern plankhouse, which serves as an outdoor classroom and is used by the Chinook Indian Nation.

  5. In 2008, Maya Lin's sculpture Bird Blind was dedicated. The blind lists 134 plants documented by Lewis and Clark, along with one word on their status today: thriving, threatened, endangered, or extinct. Coho are listed as threatened today.

  6. In 2007, the Marmot Dam, part of Portland General Electric hydroelectric project in the Sandy River basin, was removed due to pressure from conservation groups and rising management costs. Built in 1913 by Portland Railway, Light and Power Company, the dam provided hydroelectric power to Portland. Today salmon navigate a free-flowing river.  —TRM


Waste from Southwest Portland


  1. Every week two trucks (a third joins every other week) from Heiberg Garbage and Recycling, one of a number of independent haulers in the Metro region, grind their gears uphill, traveling the narrow streets of Portland's Hillsdale neighborhood. A family has set out food scraps and yard waste in a green cart; cardboard, junk mail, and cat food cans in the blue recycling cart; condiment jars and bottles in the yellow bin; and garbage in the dark green roll cart. A truck is designated for each category: recycling, compost and yard waste, and garbage.

  2. The family's recyclables are taken directly either to Far West Fibers in Beaverton or Oregon Recycling System, past the airport in East Portland. Both are “clean” material recovery facilities (there are a handful in the region), which then sell the materials based on demand in commodity markets—some nearby, others in foreign countries such as China.

  3. Loaded down with garbage and compostable waste, the other trucks head to Metro Central Transfer Station in Northwest Portland or Metro South in Oregon City, two of six transfer stations in the region. Last year, almost a half a million tons of trash was processed at Metro's two transfer stations. The Heiberg truck joins other company haulers, contractors with construction waste, and residential customers with miscellaneous items not picked up through home collection service. At the transfer station, the sorting process begins.

  4. Mixed food and yard waste is taken to Nature Need's composting facility owned by Recology Organics outside of North Plains, about twenty-three miles away, or to the Pacific Region Compost Facility in Adair Village, about twelve miles north of Corvallis.

  5. The ReBuilding Center in Portland might take doors and other reusable household items. Other items, like broken porcelain, find a second life as ground-up material in roads.

  6. After it's sorted, the garbage is piled into a mountain and ground by a wheel loader, then sent up a chute into a compactor. From there, thirty-four tons of trash at a time is loaded into long-haul trucks. Five days a week, Metro's Central and South transfer stations send sixty trucks out I-84 to the Columbia Ridge Landfill near Arlington, a three-hundred-mile round-trip. The trucks travel to the landfill full and return empty; no garbage is returned to the Portland area. When the truck arrives at the sagebrush plains of Columbia Ridge, it is tipped into the landfill and compacted into a “cell.” According to the Department of Environmental Quality, at the end of every day, the garbage in the landfill must be buried with dirt or another approved cover material. The methane that is generated from the decaying waste must be collected and is often used to generate electricity. Columbia Ridge collects 5,400 cubic feet per minute of landfill gas from more than eighty-four wells. Some of that gas is sent to an onsite energy plant, and the rest is sent up in flares. The gas that is sent to the plant powers twelve engines, which provide 12.8 MW of electricity. This electricity powers 12,500 homes in Seattle. —TRM


Traffic on North Williams Avenue


7,099 cars in a twenty-four-hour period in winter 2015 (Source: Portland Bureau of Transportation)

4,745 bicycles in a twenty-four-hour period in summer 2015 (Source: Portland Bureau of Transportation)

2,792 riders over a total of 139 bus trips in a twenty-four-hour period in spring 2015 (Source: TriMet)

Have you ever noticed that sometimes you seem to make every green light as you drive along an arterial street? That's intentional, and it means you were probably traveling at a safe speed.

Traffic engineers time the signals on certain streets to encourage reasonable speeds, a phenomenon called the “green wave.” In Portland, you can ride a green wave downtown, on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, on Southeast 17th Avenue near the new Orange Line light rail tracks, and on North Williams Avenue, represented here. (In Klamath Falls and Astoria, there are even signs to let you know what speed you should drive to benefit from the signal timing.) On North Williams, as in downtown Portland, the signals are timed to a target speed of between 13 and 16 miles per hour, depending on the time of day.

The green wave is part of a complex system that helps cars, buses, trains, bikes, and pedestrians share the streets. The traffic signal synchronization can be overridden by light rail trains and emergency vehicles. Buses get a little extra time at almost one hundred intersections throughout Portland.

Once a hub of Portland's African American community, North Williams today reflects a different wave of development and demographic changes. Cars, bikes, pedestrians, and buses share the busy corridor, recently altered to devote one of its two lanes to bicycles. Each day, thousands of people use these transit modes to pass relatively recent arrivals such as New Seasons Market, the popular restaurant Tasty & Sons, and several high-density residential buildings in various stages of construction. —EG


Measures through the Oregon System


In Oregon, voters have three distinct but related ways to affect changes to state laws and the Oregon Constitution—initiative, referendum, and referral. An initiative lets petitioners put a proposed law or amendment on the statewide ballot, to be approved or rejected by voters. A referendum lets petitioners put a law already passed by the legislature up for a vote of the people. Finally, a referral occurs when legislators send an issue to the ballot rather than voting on it themselves. Ninety-one percent of Oregon voters approved this system in 1902.

This illustration looks at the paths of two measures: 16, an initiative on physician-assisted suicide, and 88, a referendum on a law passed by the Oregon legislature that would have provided drivers' licenses to Oregonians without requiring proof of legal documentation of US citizenship status.

  1. Measure 16 State Senator Frank Roberts introduces three “Death with Dignity” bills; none make it out of committee (1990).
    Measure 88 SB 833 passes in senate 20–7 and house 38–20. Text of the bill reads in part: “The Department of Transportation shall issue, renew or replace a driver card without requiring a person to provide proof of legal presence in the United States” (Apr. 2013).

  2. Measure 88 Governor Kitzhaber signs the bill into law with effective date of January 1, 2014 (May 1, 2013).

  3. Measure 16 Peter Goodwin of Portland, Barbara Coombs of Portland, and Elven O. Sinnard of Lake Oswego file an initiative petition (Dec. 1993). Measure 88 Richard F. LaMountain, State Senator Kim Thatcher of Keizer, and State Representative Sal Esquivel of Medford file a referendum petition seeking to overturn the law (May 8, 2013).

  4. Measure 16 77,151 signatures are verified, and the measure is certified with the following language: “Allows Terminally Ill Adults to Obtain Prescription for Lethal Drugs” (July 1994). Measure 88 58,921 signatures are verified, meeting the 4 percent threshold of number of votes cast in the previous election for governor to qualify for the ballot, and the measure is certified with the following language: “Provides Oregon resident ‘driver card' without requiring proof of legal presence in the United States” (Oct. to Dec. 2013).

  5. Measure 16 Passes 627,980 to 596,018 (Nov. 1994). Measure 88 Fails 983,576 to 506,751, overturning the law signed by Governor Kitzhaber in May 2013 (Nov. 2014).

  6. Measure 16 Oregon Legislative Assembly refers Measure 51 to the people in an attempt to repeal the law. Measure 51 fails, 666,275 to 445,830 (Nov. 1997). US Attorney General John Ashcroft tries to suspend the licenses to prescribe drugs covered by the Controlled Substances Act of doctors who prescribed lethal drugs under Oregon's law. A federal judge blocks the move (2003).

  7. Measure 16 The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirms the block, saying the “Attorney General lacked Congress' requisite authorization” (2004). The US Supreme Court hears arguments in the case of Oregon v. Gonzales. The Bush administration's Solicitor General, Paul Clement, challenges Oregon's right to regulate the practice of prescribing federally banned substances (2005). The US Supreme Court votes 6–3 to uphold Oregon's assisted suicide law in the case of Oregon v. Gonzales (2006). —EG


Culture, Environment, Food, Government, Identity, Laws and legislation, Natural resources, Oregon, Oregon Humanities Magazine, Public Policy


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