WISHRAM — All he was looking for was a little retirement property. But Robert Zornes, an RV-park owner, wound up with quite a lot more.
“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 said. So he bought it, right off a real-estate website, without ever talking to the property owner.
Then came the big surprise: He had purchased one of the most historically and archaeologically sensitive pieces of property in the state.
Home to a campsite and portage route on the Lewis and Clark Trail. A cave, with prehistoric Indian rock art. Indian burials, petroglyphs and story stones. And some of the last upland vestiges of an important Indian village near Celilo Falls, once one of the greatest Indian salmon fisheries, gathering grounds and trading areas in North America.
“I wanted a pig, a horse and a cow, or maybe a dog,” Zornes said. “I wasn’t looking for a historical property. I just wanted some place to retire.”
But since he bought the property in 2011, Zornes often can be found in what he calls his war room: a study in his double-wide by the river, packed with historic photos and books — and documents from two years of frustrating correspondence with the Bonneville Power Administration.
The federal agency — which sells power from the dams on the Columbia and Lower Snake rivers — is in the middle of construction of a 28-mile, more than $200 million transmission line. Construction started right about when Zornes bought the property — and he soon received a letter from the agency informing him the BPA was about to cross the river and replace a tower near the cave. The new tower would be taller, wider and require blasting to construct — which he feared would destroy the cave and its ancient art.
And Zornes, as it turns out, is a history buff. As he put two and two together, he came to understand just how special the landscape he had bought was. “BPA starts talking about a bulldozer and we kind of freaked out.”
BPA informed him in a 2012 letter that if he didn’t grant access across his property, the agency would dynamite an alternative access road, doing potentially more damage. The fight was on.
Zornes denied access across the easement on his property, saying it was granted to a different federal agency for another purpose, and since expired. He filed trespass claims. He invited the Yakama Indian Nation to revisit sacred lands on his property. He cold-called the lead preservation officer for the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail in Omaha and invited him to come have a look. Zornes’ efforts so far have helped shut down construction of the project on his property at a cost of $2 million and counting. The agency contends its easement is valid, and that it can and will proceed with the project. Zornes is just as adamant in his opposition.
“You think the government is your friend,” Zornes said. “But they are more like the kid that beat you up for your lunch money.
“I’m not a senator, I am not a congressman. Here we are, two uneducated, lower- middle-class people in Forks,” he said, speaking of himself and his wife. “We have held them up more than a year. I think that’s significant.”
Bonneville officials say the agency has wanted to listen to all sides to reach agreements in the dispute, and stopped construction in order to do so.