Tribal Government & News

Erosion of Tribal Cemetery riverbank being examined

04.27.2017 Brent Merrill Tribal Council, Culture, Tribal Employees

Tribal Council unanimously signed an authorization to proceed on March 23 allowing Engineering and Public Works Manager Jesse White to seek a geotechnical engineer to help him assess the Yamhill River bank along the west side of the Tribal Cemetery in Grand Ronde.

White is working with River Design Group of Whitefish, Mont., to perform the work and an on-site inspection with the engineer occurred on Wednesday, April 26. River Design Group has a second office in Corvallis.

River Design Group is a private consulting firm specializing in river, stream and wetland restoration projects in the Pacific Northwest and other western states. It will provide White and Tribal Council with a report on the current status of the riverbank where it meets the back side of the cemetery for approximately 850 feet.

White said the report should identify any risks of further erosion in that area and if there are problems identified in the assessment the report also would include recommendations on how to correct or mitigate those issues.

“We’re just being proactive at the cemetery,” White said. “There are graves right on top of that bank and so we’re concerned if the river were to move farther east into that bank.

“We’re having a geotechnical engineer with a hydraulics background look at it. They specialize in soil stability issues in and along rivers and river systems, so I think they are the right people for the job.”

White said the report that will result from the engineer’s visit of the Tribal Cemetery will be something the Tribe can use to potentially stabilize the riverbank in the future if needed.

“Since it’s the cemetery, we need to be proactive,” White said of the project’s importance.

Tribal General Manager David Fullerton said the area is of extreme importance to the Tribe and that nothing happens at the cemetery without full Tribal Council support and approval.

“To my knowledge I don’t think there has ever been any action taken down at the cemetery to reduce that erosion,” Fullerton said. “Anytime we are dealing with the cemetery that is a real sensitive area. We don’t want people down there and I would stress that as a staff and as a council we are being proactive and trying to address any issues at the bank and getting ahead of it.”

Tribal Historic Preservation Manager Briece Edwards said Cultural Resources Department staff members have been on top of the situation and keeping an eye on it for years.

“The Tribal Historic Preservation Office has been monitoring that steep bank at least for the past five years out of consideration for the erosion because it is one of the most significant spaces owned today,” Edwards said. “For me, I approach everything I do with reverence, but if there is a greater reverence it’s there.”

Edwards said a strong desire to minimize any impact on the sensitive area requires using one of the department’s new pieces of equipment – its DJI Phantom 4 Quadcopter drone.

“One of our problems is how do we actually see the problem because our vantage point is limited from above,” Edwards said. “We can only do so much by looking at the aerial photography and looking at how much erosion has happened over time. We’re in hopes that by using the drone we may be able to confirm that it actually is stable or have enough advance warning that we need to do something. We’re using it as a tool.”

The first real-world application of the drone will be at the cemetery, said GIS Coordinator Volker Mell, who selected Tribal member and GIS Analyst Alex Drake to be the drone pilot.

“We can use the drone to get a real nice 3-D view,” Mell said. “That’s the first thing we are going to do. We are going to fly that bank and map it over time.”

Mell said that staff will fly the drone over the bank every year and keep that information to compare and assess the bank’s stability in the future.

Edwards said the use of the drone helps accomplish the main goal of not disturbing the land.

“We’re trying to be as least intrusive as possible with this technique so we’re not having to add more disturbance to the bank,” Edwards said. “The idea is to be as hands-off as possible and we can get a lot more information more quickly this way. All of that information allows us to make a better determination and a better evaluation so that we can come up with the most appropriate solution if it needs one.”

Tribal Lands Manager Jan Looking Wolf Reibach said the importance of the Tribe’s only truly sacred land cannot be emphasized enough.

“Following Termination, the 2.5-acre cemetery was the only Tribal land that the BIA could not sell,” Reibach said. “It remained in the care of our members during Termination era. In addition to sacred burial grounds, many strategies and plans were formed there during meetings regarding efforts to restore the Tribe.”

Fullerton said Tribal leadership has been aware of the issue at the cemetery for years and that they are asking for people to stay clear of the area in general, but especially now while the situation is assessed.

“Respect the area,” Fullerton said. “Respect what it is. Because that is such a sensitive area nothing happens without council’s approval.”