Roll on, Columbia

  It's easy to sum up the view of two new books on the Columbia River, the Nchi-Wana in a native tongue: It was wild, dammed, polluted and mutilated.

Pulitzer Prize winner William Dietrich tells a fascinating tale in Northwest Passage: The Great Columbia River as he leaves no aspect of the river untouched. Beginning with the geological wonders of its birth, he describes the natives who respected it and the developers who changed it.

Blaine Harden's A River Lost: The Life and Death of the Columbia, is less historical and half the length of Dietrich's book. His is a personal story and it meanders like the river, but both he and Dietrich tell us that 14 major dams and more than 250 dams on tributaries have reduced the river to a series of computer-controlled pools. Imagine 14 Lake Powells back-to-back.

While fish are the key indicators of the Columbia's decline, some things are just gone: the magnificent Celilo Falls and the Marmes Man rockshelter are buried beneath backwater. Salmon in the upper Columbia and Snake rivers are no more.

Both writers note bizarre solutions proposed by "experts," including a canal hundreds of miles long so fish can swim to and from the ocean unobstructed by dams.

All the while, air conditioners from as far away as Tucson and Phoenix whir as power is sent across the West, and apples and lumber travel across the seas.

These are not happy books, but they are provoking and compelling. Like Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee or Desert Solitaire, they should be mandatory reading for every high school student, public employee and elected official in the Northwest.

Northwest Passage: The Great Columbia River by William Dietrich, Simon & Schuster, $26, 448 pages; A River Lost: The Life and Death of the Columbia by Blaine Harden, Norton, $25, 271 pages.

* Christopher Van Tilburg

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