IAFI History – In the Beginning…

Research into the Channeled Scablands and other areas impacted by the Floods has resulted in a more thorough understanding of events that led up to the Floods and the impacts that they had on the landscape, and has helped create a greater public awareness of the Ice Age Floods. As the story of the Floods has become widely publicized via magazine and newspaper articles, books, brochures and pamphlets, and television documentaries it has become evident that the development of a coordinated interpretive and educational approach to tell the Floods story throughout Montana, Idaho, Washington, and Oregon is needed.

Since Smithsonian magazine published a feature article about the floods in 1995 several popular books have included Floods material; several newspapers have published stories; a number of videos have been produced; and Oregon Public Broadcasting televised a half-hour special on the subject. The more the public learns about the Ice Age Floods story, the more fascinated they become and are asking that the Floods story be told in an exciting and accessible way.

After all, this is a story that seems to belong more to the realm of science fiction than to reality. The scale and immensity of the Floods are hard to imagine; standing in central Washington it is almost impossible to comprehend that everything visible in all directions was covered by hundreds of feet of water during the height of the Floods.

Dry Falls

During the Ice Age Floods, Dry Falls was under 300 feet of water moving at 65 miles per hour. (NPS Photo)

The Early Days – Formation of Ice Age Floods Task Force

In June of 1987, in response to a request from the National Park Service (NPS) Regional Office to document the status of the National Natural Landmark (NNL) sites, NPS representatives from (then) Coulee Dam National Recreation Area organized a field trip to sites within a one-day drive of Coulee Dam, Washington. Dan Hand, Interpretation Specialist at Coulee Dam (now Lake Roosevelt) National Recreation Area, laid out a route of travel to include the upper and lower Grand Coulee, Withrow Moraine, Haystack Rocks, a great gravel bar in Moses Coulee and some eskers and kames near Sims Corner. Others making the trip were Superintendent Gary Kuiper, NPS, Craig Sprankle, Public Affairs Officer of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBOR), Judy Sprankle, Editor of the Star newspaper in Coulee Dam, and Phil Hansen, USBOR Geologist.

From this initial field trip, it soon became evident that here was a story that needed to be told. Other than what Washington State Parks featured within their system, there was not a single interpretive display or roadside exhibit along the entire length of the upper Grand Coulee or at the other sites that were visited. Hansen’s interpretation of the geologic history leading up to the series of flood events left the tour group wanting to know more. And indeed, there was more to the story than could be covered in one day. Judy Sprankle’s article about the Floods in the Grand Coulee Star Newspaper piqued local interest and another tour was organized for the local Chamber of Commerce and others interested in learning about the Floods story.

About this time, Dan Brown replaced Dan Hand as the park interpreter at Coulee Dam National Recreation Area. Brown hired an experienced photographer to develop a slide file. It would enable National Park Service interpreters to present the story of the Ice Age Floods to the public. Ed Soldo built a slide file with more than 3,000 slides, including aerial shots. Brown prepared the script for an Ice Age Floods slide program that was based in no small part in Cataclysms on the Columbia by John Allen, Marjorie Burns and Samuel Sargent, which was published in 1985.

While local NPS representatives realized that the Floods events were of national significance, selling the idea to cooperating agencies and eventually the public was an important first step. Officially, the NPS Regional Director was notified by memo in August 1987 that, at least in the opinion of interested individuals, the Ice Age Floods events met the criteria for identification as being nationally significant. NPS Regional Director Chuck Odegaard was a former Washington State Parks Director and was familiar with the state park interpretive program at Dry Falls. He gave the go ahead to pursue an initiative to inform agencies and the public of the value of the Floods resources.

Realizing that elected officials would eventually play an important role, efforts were made to work with county commissioners and Congressional delegations and inform them of the Floods resources in their back yards. Moreover, project organizers took great pains to assure everyone that the NPS was not interested in acquiring more land. Project organizers contacted geologists at each of the state universities and soon were networking with counterparts in Montana, Idaho, Washington, and Oregon.

The gorge above Palouse Falls, WA

The gorge above Palouse Falls, WA

In early 1993, the team of Dan Brown and Gary Kuiper hit the road, showing the program to more than 70 audiences, including the Audubon Club, Grange, and Chamber groups, Tribal officials and county commissioners, other federal officials, anyone, for that matter, who showed an interest. Each of the four states was covered, and long days and nights were the rule. In addition, an article in the Spokesman Review written by Becky Napi generated a great deal of interest.

Kathleen Johnson of the USGS, Spokane Office, provided the necessary maps and connected project organizers with Richard Waitt, USGS, and others in her agency. The BLM Spokane District Office staff added to the concept by suggesting that the Floods story be aimed at a wider regional audience. This expanded target was critical because the BLM had a majority of the Floods landscape under its jurisdiction in eastern Washington. Soon there were solid contacts in Montana with USFS geologists Norm Smyers and Jim Shelden, and Karen Porter of the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology. In Idaho, the project had the support of Roy Breckenridge of the Idaho Geological Survey. Others lending support were Dale Stradling and Gene Kiver of Eastern Washington University and Paul Weis, retired USGS, whose publication on the Scablands of Eastern Washington is still a popular item.

These early conversations and meetings led to a more formal approach, and on February 17, 1993, the first of seven Ice Age Floods Task Force meetings was held. The membership of the Task Force was meant to include the interested general public and legal entities such as county commissioners, Tribes, Chambers of Commerce, tourism industry and political staffers. Although having all of these groups serving as active members of the Task Force was not the point, it was essential that they be kept informed and be invited to participate in the process.

One of the most influential events in carrying the story of the Floods to a wider audience was the production of a video of the Floods. Initially Ann Herdrick of the Odessa (Washington) Economic Development Committee (OEDC) approached Jim Sipes, Washington State University Professor of Landscape Architecture, about using the Floods story to help increase tourism in the Odessa area. They started work on a video that would tell the story of the Floods and guide people to significant Floods features, specifically around Odessa.

Around the same time both Superintendent Kuiper and Interpretive Specialist Brown realized they could not continue indefinitely to take their “road show” to every group that requested it. The decision was made to combine forces, and the result was the production of the 13-minute video, “The Great Floods: Cataclysms of the Ice Age.” (A video called “Floods of Fire and Water” was subsequently developed for OEDC in June 1994.) The video combined the narrative and some photos of the slide show with video and computer animation sequences developed by WSU that showed the Floods roaring across the landscape of northwestern Montana, Idaho, Washington, and Oregon, and finally out to the Pacific Ocean. The product was an instant success, being aired on PBS, shown at visitor centers and schools, and receiving several national awards.

Formation of the Ice Age Floods Institute

While the notion of a coordinated interpretive approach remained a primary goal, the Task Force became inactive pending the availability of study funds. Toward the end of 1993, members of the Task Force discussed the need for a private, nonprofit organization that would complement the interagency Task Force. The consensus was that the private sector could more readily support and participate in the development of a coordinated interpretive program. A number of individual citizens and representatives of business groups had already been attending Task Force meetings.

With assistance from some members of the Task Force, the Ice Age Floods Institute was organized early in 1994. Officers and a board were elected, bylaws and articles of incorporation were adopted, and the process to qualify as a Washington nonprofit corporation and to be granted 501(c)(3) status with the IRS was initiated. The first Institute newsletter was published and sent to individuals from the Task Force’s mailing list. Institute members adopted a logo, and Task Force members helped design and produce a brochure that is still being used. The purpose of the brochure was both to promote interest in the Floods and to recruit members for the Institute. The Spokane Chamber of Commerce provided a home base for the Institute in this formative period.

Over the course of 1994, the Institute became active and visible in promoting the concept of a comprehensive interpretive program. Presentations were made to tourism and business groups, and statements of support were received from several Chamber of Commerce groups. One Institute member in particular, Karen Wagner of Moses Lake, Washington, Chamber of Commerce, became a leading advocate for the Floods initiative. The Institute and its objectives were featured in a number of newspaper articles.

As a functioning group, the Task Force became less active, and then went on standby, intentionally awaiting funding for a study. The Institute continued the effort, relying on interest and support from the private sector. The Institute benefited from the continuing interest and participation of some agency and university personnel and retired staff who were members of the Task Force. In addition, the BLM Spokane office provided meeting space to the Institute for a number of years.

An important legacy of the Task Force period is the “Great Floods” video, which became available in 1994 and has been selling steadily ever since. The video has proved to be very useful in making presentations to a wide variety of audiences. In 1995 Michael Parfit’s excellent article, “The Floods That Carved the West,” appeared in Smithsonian magazine (April 1995). The article immediately became one of the prime informational pieces about the Floods and the Institute was included in the list of “additional sources.”

One of the remarkable events in the history of the Institute was its collaboration with NASA, Arizona State University and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in the fall of 1995. In preparing for the Mars Pathfinder mission, NASA, ASU and JPL sent a team to the Channeled Scablands to examine Floods features that apparently are analogous to features on the surface of Mars. The Institute helped with arrangements for the visit, and in the exploration of the Scablands. The project was very well publicized.

Dry Falls, WA

Dry Falls, WA

At the time, the publication of the Smithsonian article and the visit by NASA were encouraging, but overall the Institute was facing a rather difficult period. Substantial commercial support had not materialized, and there was little apparent progress toward the goal of a comprehensive interpretive program. The Institute moved its base of operations from Spokane to the Ritzville Chamber of Commerce, then to the Odessa Economic Development Committee, and then to the Moses Lake Chamber of Commerce.

Some individuals who had been involved in the Task Force and the Institute dropped out. A small but growing group of dedicated individuals remained to hold the Institute together, sharing their enthusiasm amongst themselves and with others, and keeping the idea of a coordinated interpretive program alive. In October 1996 the Institute offered its first field trip, led by a retired USGS geologist and Task Force member. A new guidebook appeared in 1997: Fire, Faults & Floods: A Road & Travel Guide Exploring the Origins of the Columbia River Basin, by Marge and Ted Mueller (University of Idaho Press), covering the Columbia River Basalt flows as well as the Ice Age Floods. It was originally hoped that field trips would be an annual activity, but none was offered in 1997. No one could know that within about three years, a ground swell of media and public interest would emerge.

After years of effort, a dramatic turning point came in 1998, with the following events showing that interest in the Floods had reached a remarkable level:

  • Grant County Commissioners (WA) voted to assist financially in the operation of Dry Falls Interpretive Center, in order to keep the center open seven days a week in the summer season.
  • The governing boards for Washington State Parks and the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation passed resolutions of support for a proposed NPS Study.
  • KSPS (Spokane) began production of a one-hour TV show on the Floods, to be shown in the spring of 2001.
  • Oregon Public Broadcasting (Portland) aired a new half-hour show on the Floods.
  • Discovery Channel included a segment about the Floods in a two-hour show titled “Amazing Earth.

IAF PacNW MapA particularly significant event in 1998 was the publication of the large “Glacial Lake Missoula and the Channeled Scabland” map. The map, which shows the whole region affected by the Ice Age Floods, went on sale late in the year and quickly became a best-seller. By February 2000 the map had gone through three printings and 15,000 copies had been sold. As a gauge of public interest in the Floods, these figures are hard to ignore.

None of the projects listed above were a direct result of Institute initiatives, but the Institute was active in encouraging and/or publicizing these projects. In the Institute’s own program, three developments were noteworthy in 1998:

  • The Institute’s website was established and continues to be hosted by the Idaho Geological Survey, at the University of Idaho. The site has attracted new members to the Institute, some from outside the region.
  • A major field trip was conducted to explore the Glacial Lake Missoula area in Montana, and it received an enthusiastic response in print and broadcast media. The tour was organized and led by a USFS member of the Task Force.
  • The Institute, largely through its newsletter, became established as an effective source of information about Floods activities and resources

The Institute and the NPS Study of Alternatives

NPS IAF logoAfter years of effort to have the Floods formally recognized for their significance, the first procedural “giant step” came early in 1999, with the announcement by the National Park Service that funding for a Study of Alternatives had been secured through the Congressional appropriations process. The Institute has taken an active part in the conduct of the Study and wholeheartedly supported its objectives. Participation in the Study was the most important activity of the Institute membership in 1999 and 2000, and interest in the Study can be credited for a substantial increase in Institute membership. The prospect of successfully launching an interpretive program has proven to be very effective in generating even greater interest and involvement. Institute members have made presentations on the Floods and the Study to local groups, and have been working with these groups in order to encourage their participation and input.

Over the course of this Study, Institute meetings were held in conjunction with Study Team and Study Zone meetings. Following several of these meetings, one-day field trips provided opportunities to explore important and distinctive Floods features in five different areas of the region. The field trips were co-sponsored by the Institute and the National Park Service. Though primarily intended for members of the Study Team and the Institute, the tours also were open to schoolteachers and the general public. Staff at local museums and Chambers of Commerce helped with arrangements, and the trips were well reported in the local media. Each of the field trips was subscribed to full or near capacity, and all were well received. Credit for their success goes to the tour guides’ expertise, preparation, planning, and presentation skills. The guides were highly qualified volunteers from the USGS, BLM, USFS, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Foundation for Glacial and Environmental Research, Idaho Geological Survey, and the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation. Six of the guides were members of the original Ice Age Floods Task Force.

The first of the series, held in October 1999, visited dramatic sites near Moses Lake, Washington, including lower Grand Coulee, Dry Falls, and the Drumheller Channels. In February 2000 a tour starting in Vancouver, Washington, explored the pervasive evidence of the volume, force, and load-carrying capacity of the Floods in the Portland-Vancouver basin. In May, a trip from Missoula, Montana, focused on the filling and sudden drainage of Glacial Lake Missoula, and included stops in Missoula, the Clark Fork River Valley, Camas Prairie, and Mission Valley. In September a trip from Richland, Washington, included stops at Wallula Gap, Palouse Falls, and at significant rhythmite beds in the Walla Walla Valley. Also in September a tour was conducted from Sandpoint, Idaho, to the location of the ice dam and to features located in the immediate path of the catastrophic outbursts that occurred when the dam repeatedly failed. Tour stops included Cabinet Gorge, Lake Pend Oreille, and Spirit Lake.

The field trips proved to be very effective in presenting physical evidence of the Floods and in responding to the interest and questions that the Floods story evokes. The Institute and other groups will be expanding opportunities for expert-guided tours to explore the Floods regions.

At the October 1999 meeting, the Institute voted to form an expert Scientific Advisory Panel because of concern about the reliability of Floods information being presented to the public. The Panel reviews technical information developed for Institute projects and materials as well as drafts submitted by reporters and other writers who turn to the Institute for advice. The Panel also prepared a basic fact sheet about the Floods, which serves as a guide for writers and interpreters, and also as a source of general information. The Institute was also active during 1999 and 2000 in a number of collaborative activities:

  • Working with the American Automobile Association (AAA) to include more information about the Floods in forthcoming AAA regional TourBooks.
  • Providing referrals to help the Port of Walla Walla (WA) develop an interpretive installation at Wallula Gap, a major site in the Floods story as well as in the cultural and overall natural history of the region.
  • Assisting consultants working with Avista Corporation and local Chambers of Commerce in their development of interpretive facilities and a scenic byway in the Cabinet Gorge Dam area and along the lower Clark Fork River.
  • Working with charter flight companies to promote aerial sightseeing services over the landscape created by the Floods.
  • Beginning discussions with CarTours, an organization that produces cassette and CD touring guides and is affiliated with the Northwest Interpretive Association

These connections are indications of the interest of the general community in the Floods story and of the ways the Institute can bring people together and make efficient use of resources and talents.

Excerpted from Ice Age Floods – Study of Alternatives and Environmental Assessment” by Jones & Jones, 2001