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Running the gantlet

State and federal officials who meet today to take the first look at a proposed whitewater course near Gold Hill should keep an open mind and look for ways to make it happen. If it can be accomplished without harming the river, its fish runs or nesting birds, the project has the potential to create a tourism draw that would benefit the local economy.

Steve Kiesling, a Gold Hill man and former Olympic canoeist who owns property on the south side of the whitewater stretch formerly known as Powerhouse Rapids, is proposing some changes to the placement of boulders to create a whitewater course where competitions could be held. He will present a range of possibilities today to a gathering of officials from state and federal agencies that would have to sign off on any work.

The agencies include state and federal wildlife departments, the Division of State Lands, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Oregon Department of Transportation.

The most dramatic step Kiesling has proposed is moving or reshaping "Mugger's Rock," a large boulder that bedevils rafters in the "Mugger's Alley" portion of the rapids, which are now called Ti'lomikh Falls, the name given the stretch by Native Americans who fished there.

Kiesling says altering Mugger's Rock would make it safer for recreational boaters and more consistent for kayak racers and trainers. The safety issue is secondary — running rapids is inherently dangerous, and altering a river to make it "safer" could give the false impression that all danger has been removed.

But if the changes would create a whitewater course that would draw competitors and spectators from far and wide, that would be a good thing for Gold Hill and for the valley as a whole. That's a big reason why County Commissioner Don Skundrick arranged today's meeting involving the affected agencies as well as a Denver-based whitewater course designer.

Environmental concerns must be addressed, of course. Two dams have been removed near that section of river primarily to help restore native fish runs. Nothing should be allowed that would jeopardize that effort. But the rapids in question are not spawning grounds, and work can be scheduled at times when relatively few fish are present.

In-stream work that is temporary should be able to be accomplished with minimum impact.

There is likely to be resistance from environmental groups that oppose altering natural river features. But those same groups repeatedly tout tourism as a substitute for the dollars generated by logging and mining.

Here is an opportunity to capitalize on a natural resource by altering it somewhat but not depleting it.

That's why agency officials in today's meeting should focus on finding an approach that can work rather than looking for reasons to say no.