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Eastern Oregon’s Top 10 stories of the year

Natural phenomena, growing festivals and a changing political climate lead year’s news

East Oregonian staff

Published on December 29, 2017 12:01AM

Last changed on December 29, 2017 9:32PM

Staff photo by E.J. HarrisHenry Greutert and Katie Mertel, both of Mercer Island, Washington, watch the eclipse on Monday, Aug. 21, in John Day.

Staff photo by E.J. HarrisHenry Greutert and Katie Mertel, both of Mercer Island, Washington, watch the eclipse on Monday, Aug. 21, in John Day.

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Staff photo by E.J. Harris
Marvin Morris of Pendleton uses a snowblower to clear the driveway of a friend’s house on Northwest Bailey Avenue on Wednesday, Jan. 11, in Pendleton.

Staff photo by E.J. Harris Marvin Morris of Pendleton uses a snowblower to clear the driveway of a friend’s house on Northwest Bailey Avenue on Wednesday, Jan. 11, in Pendleton.

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Staff photo by E.J. HarrisFair goers walk the promenade Wednesday, Aug. 9, at the Umatilla County Fair in Hermiston.

Staff photo by E.J. HarrisFair goers walk the promenade Wednesday, Aug. 9, at the Umatilla County Fair in Hermiston.

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Staff photo by E.J. HarrisJohn Thomas of Pendleton, fourth from left, chants with marchers during an the Equality March ofor Pride and Unity on Sunday, June 11, in Pendleton. More than 130 people participated in weekend march.

Staff photo by E.J. HarrisJohn Thomas of Pendleton, fourth from left, chants with marchers during an the Equality March ofor Pride and Unity on Sunday, June 11, in Pendleton. More than 130 people participated in weekend march.

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Staff photo by E.J. HarrisBudtender Evan Hilliard uses chopsticks to handle marijuana while measuring out an order for a customer on Wednesday, June 21, at Kind Leaf in Pendleton.

Staff photo by E.J. HarrisBudtender Evan Hilliard uses chopsticks to handle marijuana while measuring out an order for a customer on Wednesday, June 21, at Kind Leaf in Pendleton.

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Staff photo by E.J. HarrisA marked increase in the amount of smoke from northwest wildfires can be seen in these side-by-side photographs from Monday, August 4, and Tuesday, Aug. 5, in Pendleton.

Staff photo by E.J. HarrisA marked increase in the amount of smoke from northwest wildfires can be seen in these side-by-side photographs from Monday, August 4, and Tuesday, Aug. 5, in Pendleton.

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Staff photo by Kathy Aney
Maroon 5’s Adam Levine sings during the Pendleton Whisky Music Fest on Saturday, July 15.

Staff photo by Kathy Aney Maroon 5’s Adam Levine sings during the Pendleton Whisky Music Fest on Saturday, July 15.

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1. Total eclipse of the sun eclipses all else

Oregon was right in the path of totality for the Aug. 21 total solar eclipse, an astronomical phenomenon that won’t touch the West Coast again until 2045.

State and local tourism and emergency agencies worked together for a year in anticipation of hundreds of thousands of tourists swarming the state to view the biggest celestial event of the new century. Crews with the Oregon Department of Transportation even learned the safest ways to push vehicles to the side of the road to avoid traffic jams. And wildland firefighters held their breath that a blaze did not spark up and run rampant through the whole thing.

The number of visitors to the state was lower than expectations, but none of the bad scenarios came to pass either.

Umatilla and Morrow counties were outside the path of total darkness, but thousands of locals donned special sunglasses and watched the sun all but disappear behind the moon during the middle of the morning. The heart of totality was just south in Grant and Baker counties.

About the worst local effect was traffic backing up for a while along Highway 395 in Pilot Rock and at the Columbia River Bridge in Umatilla as tourists streamed through on their return trips.

Still, for 2 minutes and 10 seconds, the length of totality, nothing else much mattered.

2. Ice and snow shut down roads, schools during nasty winter

Schools, highways and interstates were closed for days at a time during the first two month of 2017, continuing a winter that was the harshest that many people could remember in Umatilla County.

Pendleton School District was up to nine missed school days by mid-February, causing the district to join Hermiston in extending the school year by an extra week even after the Oregon Department of Education addressed the extreme weather by allowing schools to refrain from making up 14 hours of missed class time. Interstate 84 and Interstate 82 were closed repeatedly due to icy conditions and crashes, particularly on Cabbage Hill, and Oregon Department of Transportation workers worked thousands of hours of overtime in January and February to help keep the interstates and state highways clear.

The extreme weather was a boon for some businesses, as repair work for fender-benders piled up and snow shovels flew off the shelves, but other businesses reported an unusually-low winter slump as people avoided driving the icy roads as much as possible.

3. Umatilla County Fair moves to EOTEC

Nearly three years after its groundbreaking, the Eastern Oregon Trade and Event Center hosted its first Umatilla County Fair and Farm-City Pro Rodeo in August.

Construction on the project, located on the southeastern edge of Hermiston, came down to the wire as volunteers and contractors worked nearly around the clock to finish everything needed for the fair and rodeo’s new home.

The fair dealt with complaints from neighbors and fairgoers about traffic jams, dust, noise and a lack of shade, but also saw plenty of compliments from participants who enjoyed the larger venue, air-conditioned exhibitor hall, extra box seats in the rodeo arena and much-improved restroom situation.

The move prompted changes at the old fairgrounds in the center of Hermiston, where the former Hermiston Senior Center was torn down and a new parking lot for Hermiston High School, set to open next week, was built.

And after tapping Nate Rivera as EOTEC’s interim manager, the EOTEC board hired venue management company VenuWorks to begin full-time operation of the center in January 2018.

4. Marchers take to Pendleton streets

The organizers of the Women’s March on Pendleton expected about 150 people to show up Jan. 21 for the event. They got more than 400.

Women, men and children strode through downtown Pendleton streets from city hall to the Umatilla County Courthouse to the Heritage Station Museum. Many hefted signs expressing the need for respect, compassion, and solidarity with women.

The event coincided with marches nationwide. Women’s rights was the central theme of the day, but marchers expressed a multitude of reasons for their participation. Some spoke out against President Donald Trump or police brutality, others showed support for the Black Lives Matter movement and immigration.

At the end, they sang “We Shall Overcome,” an anthem if the Civil Rights Movement, and “This Land is Your Land.”

The Blue Mountain Marchers hit Pendleton streets again on Earth Day, April 22, for science, and around 150 marched in June to show support for LGBT rights.

Marchers on the other side of the political spectrum took to Pendleton streets in August to show support for Cliven Bundy and his family. The event drew 13 people.

The marches might not be done. Organizers are looking at another Women’s March for Jan. 20, the one-year anniversary of President Trump’s inauguration.

5. Marijuana goes on sale in Pendleton

The sale of marijuana went from a practice that was nearly banned in 2015 to one of Pendleton’s fastest growing industries.

After city voters decisively voted to legalize medical and recreational marijuana, Jan. 1 marked the first day cannabis businesses could apply for licenses.

Despite needing to gain approval from both the city and the state, and pay the thousands of dollars worth of accompanying fees, three marijuana dispensaries opened in 2017.

The first retailer — Kind Leaf Pendleton — opened in March and reported almost 100 customers before the first day was halfway done. Pendleton Cannabis and High Desert Cannabis would follow in the coming months and have been successful enough to stay open through the end of the year.

Although none have opened yet, two marijuana grows have also received approval from the Pendleton Planning Commission.

The city of Pendleton hasn’t publicly disclosed the revenue it has received from its share of the state tax on recreational marijuana and its own 3 percent sales tax, but there are early signs that pot has been a revenue generator. At a recent Pendleton City Council meeting, Kind Leaf co-owner Brandon Krenzler reported that his dispensary has already provided more than double the $25,000 the city projected it would receive from marijuana tax revenue.

That doesn’t mean marijuana sales haven’t been without their fair share of controversies.

A coalition of neighbors and Pendleton School District officials successfully pushed smoke shop owner Bryson Thurman to move his proposed marijuana dispensary from Tutuilla Road to a different location after outcry at a planning commission meeting.

6. The summer of fire and smoke

Though there were no major fires in the area, Eastern Oregon was inundated with smoke from all sides. The northeastern part of the state was hazy for most of August and September, first with smoke from wildfires in Montana and then, due to westerly winds, more smoke from the Eagle Creek Fire in the Columbia River Gorge. In addition, fires near Sisters in Central Oregon, and in British Columbia burned during the summer.

The Eagle Creek Fire was started September 2 by a 15 year-old boy playing with fireworks, who was charged with reckless burning. It closed down portions of I-84, rerouting traffic to Washington’s SR-14 for several weeks. The fire was declared 100 percent contained on Nov. 30, almost three months after it was sparked. The fire burned more than 75 square miles and closed several trails in the Gorge.

7. Mega-dairy beats appeal, starts operation

A second mega-dairy began operating at the former Boardman Tree Farm in 2017, despite concerns from environmental groups over potential air and water pollution.

Lost Valley Farm, owned by California dairyman Greg te Velde, received its permit for a confined animal feeding operation, or CAFO, from the Oregon Department of Agriculture and Department of Environmental Quality on March 31. The farm will have 30,000 cows at full capacity, and generate an estimated 187 million gallons of wastewater and manure every year.

Though ODA and DEQ insist the permit for Lost Valley is the most protective of any dairy in Oregon to date, a coalition of groups adamantly opposed the its approval, saying it would generate as much waste as a mid-size city in an area that already suffers from elevated levels of groundwater nitrates. The permit also does nothing to account for air emissions, they argued.

Regardless, the agencies denied a petition for reconsideration in July, allowing Lost Valley to move ahead. It is expected to provide between 125-150 jobs, and the milk will be sold to nearby Tillamook Cheese at the Port of Morrow.

8. Wolf depredation, kills throughout year

Wolves, a protected species in Eastern Oregon, spent much of 2017 in the crosshairs of both poachers and state wildlife officials.

Following repeated attacks on livestock in the area, the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife approved kill orders for four wolves from the Harl Butte pack in Wallowa County, plus one more wolf from the Meacham pack which had preyed multiple times on cattle owned by Cunningham Sheep Company.

But that wasn’t all.

A wolf was also poached in Wallowa County in November, and a hunter reported that he shot a wolf he believed was threatening him in Union County. The man was not charged in the incident.

The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission now heads into 2018 looking to finalize an update to the state’s Wolf Conservation and Management Plan. Specific proposals have drawn criticism from conservationists and ranchers alike, ensuring contention over the predators is far from over.

9. Maroon 5 headlines Pendleton Whisky Music Fest

In its second year, Pendleton Whisky Music Fest floored locals by netting headliner Maroon 5. The show drew people from all over the West Coast to see the band perform at the packed Round-Up Grounds.

The pop/rock band was a departure from the previous year’s country headliner, the Zac Brown Band. With three Grammys, and the growing visibility of frontman Adam Levine on NBC’s “The Voice,” Whisky Fest organizers hoped the band would appeal to a broader base, bringing in more people to the event. Event organizers said more than 16,000 people attended the concert, a 30 percent increase from the inaugural show.

The event was also expanded with a Friday night concert in downtown Pendleton, and organizers addressed the major complaint from 2016 — long lines for alcohol — by adding vendors and selling scrip instead of taking cash in the venue.

The 2018 Whisky Fest is July 14, and an announcement for the headliner is expected in February.

10. ArcticShark, AirBus launch at Pendleton test range

Some of the Pendleton Unmanned Aerial Systems Range’s promise has been realized this year.

The range broke through with major companies and organizations agreeing to test their new aircraft in Pendleton.

With the help of a $1.7 million financial package from the state, the range unveiled a new hangar at the Pendleton airport in June. It’s first tenant is A^3, the Silicon Valley subsidiary of French aviation giant Airbus.

A^3 is using the hangar and the range for Project Vahana, a drone that’s being tested as an air taxi, among other applications. The company transported the vehicle to Pendleton in November and began testing it.

The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, a U.S. Department of Energy facility in Richland, Washington, also tested one of their latest unmanned aircraft — the ArcticShark.

An offshoot of a UAS used for surveillance and reconnaissance by the Navy, the 625-pound drone with a 22-foot wingspan started testing at the range in February.

With the intention of flying a mission in 2018, the ArcticShark has more than a dozen instruments it will use to measure climate data over the coast of Alaska.













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