UMATILLA, Ore. -- Camp Umatilla is a small installation that sits on the banks of the Columbia River, west of Hermiston in northeastern Oregon. The camp recently received the Secretary of the Army Environmental Award for Cultural Resources Management – Small Installation for its work in preserving the historical aspects of the site while upgrading it to a modern training facility.
Camp Umatilla was established in 1940 by the Army as a new munitions depot, used primarily for storage, consisting of a thousand concrete igloos, maintenance facilities, and grounds for testing, demolition, and disposal. Throughout World War II, the installation grew, eventually containing 536 structures and cantonment area of historical significance based on the wartime era in which they were built. In addition, the grounds included tribal cultural properties and religious sites deemed important to the Confederated Tribes of Umatilla Indian Reservation.
In 2005 as part of the Army Base Realignment and Closure program, Camp Umatilla began the process of transferring 7,500 acres to the Oregon Army National Guard. The ORARNG Environmental Office and the Cultural Resources Management program were charged with bringing in stakeholders and finding ways to preserve the consequential and cultural value of the site while allowing modern training and operations to proceed. A daunting task, but even more so considering the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, which requires federal agencies to consider the effects of its actions on all historic properties by identifying such properties, assessing adverse effects, and resolving those effects.
Knowing that it was going to be a monumental task, the CRM program conducted an Environmental Assessment of Camp Umatilla under the National Environmental Policy Act process. The evaluation revealed that all buildings in the 7,500 acres could be eligible to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places, which meant that all future work on the buildings would require individual Section 106 reviews. This type of review is a costly and timely process that would have tied up the project for years, delaying construction and crucial training exercises.
A solution was developed by the Environmental Office and CRM program, in consultation with the State Historic Preservation Office, considered a “Grand Bargain” where 12 buildings and six igloos concentrated in a 15.5 acre and 8-acre parcel, respectively, would be preserved and established as a Historic District. Those structures were declared significant and would adequately represent American WWII construction and history. The remaining 518 buildings were rendered non-significant or unsafe, meaning they could be demolished or re-purposed as needed by the Army.
Another accomplishment was the development of a comprehensive Historic District Management Manual designed to guide users on how to conduct maintenance on the remaining historic structures, complete archaeological surveys across 4,200 acres, and document the remnants of an 1874 wagon road that was part of a connecting spur to the historic Oregon Trail.
To address the tribal cultural assets, ORARNG partnered with tribal leaders of CTUIR to ensure access while protecting cultural and religious sites.
Transferability is a key aspect in the Army’s ability to reorganize and use existing grounds more efficiently and effectively. Camp Umatilla is a case in which hundreds of potentially historic buildings would have prevented an affordable and smooth transfer of land to ORARNG and resulted in a significant mission impact.
“It was our agency’s engagement and relationship with SHPO that led to a customized approach to balancing preservation with the growing needs of modern facilities. Combining this commitment to cooperation and the best practices in historic management allowed Camp Umatilla to open with limited impacts on development or training activities,” said James Arnold, Environmental Branch chief, Oregon Military Department.
The installation is now ready to move forward with renovations and new construction of barracks, classrooms, and dining halls, as well as the establishment of small arms ranges and maneuver areas.
“An added benefit of the transfer is Camp Umatilla’s ability to connect with the community. Portions of the training site are accessible to the public and hold potential for further outreach and educational opportunities. Interpretive panels will be erected in the historic district providing way-finding and historical context for the area,” said Arnold.