Good Planning, Good Health: An interview with Rajiv Bhatia

Rajiv Bhatia, MD, MPH, is the Director of Occupational and Environmental Health for the San Francisco Department of Public Health. He is also a faculty member at both the University of California at San Francisco School of Medicine and the University of California Berkeley School of Public Health. He is a founding member of the Health and Social Justice Committee for the National Association of County and City Health Officials. Nationally recognized for leadership in developing the health impact assessment tool, Bhatia thinks poor health resulting from social factors can be combatted by cooperation among health officials, policy makers, and the public. He was recently interviewed in San Francisco by Metroscape’s® Vivek Shandas.

Shandas: What do you see as the critical public health challenges faced by local city and county government agencies today?

Bhatia: To begin with, our health disparities and our health and equities. While some people are able to take advantage of healthy neighborhood conditions and all of the assets of our medical system, others can’t. And that shows up in life-expectancy differences of a decade, from neighborhood-to-neighborhood, in a place like San Francisco or Portland. A child born today in one neighborhood has 10 years less life expectancy than a child in another area. That has to be the driving and motivating challenge of public health. That’s the beginning, I think, of the challenge.

If that is the fundamental challenge, then one must ask, why? What are the conditions that we have to change? You can go to the public health library and look at public health research and see that the condition that we have to change is social segregation. We separate by race and economic class, meaning that we give children different resources. Some areas have air pollution and noise, and other places don’t. Some people have access to living-wage jobs, and others don’t. Some people have access to quality education, and others don’t. Some people have parks right down the street that have playgrounds and facilities for physical activity, and others don’t.

When you add up all of these differences, you get to the explanation; you begin to understand why differences in life expectancy are as much as a decade from neighborhood-to-neighborhood.

What, then, does a public health department do, understanding that huge health inequities exist from neighborhood-to-neighborhood, and that there are specific conditions that need to be changed? First, they have to realize the obstacles they face in changing the conditions. These conditions – parks, land-use – are not in the mandate and the role of public health agencies. This isn’t what public health agencies are expected to do by politicians or the public – our roles have become much more narrow. A hundred years ago, when public health started, we were responsible for air quality, sanitation, water quality, and other environmental conditions. But all of these roles have been more or less fragmented or segregated to different institutions, and now public health has a much narrower role.

So public health has to figure out how to interact and engage, and help shape conditions that are the responsibilities of other public sectors. And I think that’s one kind of fundamental challenge.

As a society, we don’t really talk about health as product of neighborhood and social environmental conditions.

Another challenge is that people don’t necessarily recognize the problems. I think if you begin to have this discussion with people, they’ll understand what you’re saying, and they’ll get it, and they’ll say, “Oh, yeah, of course having a park nearby is important to public health.” But as a society, we don’t really talk about health as product of neighborhood and social environmental conditions. We talk about health more often as the product of individual responsibility and what nature endowed us with through our genes.

Public health has an important role in changing the frame. Public health officials are asked, “What do we do about this problem of asthma?” their first response shouldn’t be, “We need to get more people to the hospital to take their asthma inhalers.” Their response has to also include that we need to improve housing conditions so there aren’t allergens in the home, that we need to make sure people aren’t living near freeways, where air pollution levels are higher. We need to make sure that moms have paid sick-days so they can take their children to the doctor to get preventative care. That reframing is a second, very action-level challenge for public health.

The third action is to realize that public health doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel. There are community organizations, there are social justice movements, there are people out there who are working to improve environmental conditions. And public health needs to show these social and environmental movements that it can once again be an ally. A particular way to do that is to provide scientific evidence of the linkages between public policy, environmental and social conditions, and health. That should be our role.

The relationship works in a few ways. Public health needs to make people who are already engaged with different policy sectors aware of what public health knows about the public health impacts of different policy decisions. We need to do health-impact assessments to formally bring that evidence to the table in policymaking.

We also have to create a demand for this work. In part, what we need to do is to convince social movements and people that they need to be demanding that public health is involved. There may be innovators and small groups in public health that are willing to be the early adopters of approaches like health-impact assessment. But in order to move the whole institution, you’re likely going to have to create some political pressure on the public health institution to be more engaged in policy outside the sector.

The fourth action is a critical challenge: ensuring accountability. In San Francisco, I see a lot of health policy written into the general plan. It says, “Avoid exposing sensitive populations to air pollution.” But how are we doing that? We weren’t doing that, we weren’t doing that until public health said, “We’re going to fill this gap that our general plan already calls for.”

There are many examples of where we develop a social policy and agree on a policy, but then it’s just not implemented. The most striking example is in school desegregation – we opened up schools to children of all ethnicities and races, but then what happened? Because racism was still prevalent in our society, people moved away, and we have greater segregation by residence now than probably we did several decades ago, which totally undermines the idea of integrated schools.

Shandas: You mentioned the challenge that public health agencies face in interacting with other government agencies. Do you admire any regions or cities across the globe for explicitly attempting to address this issue, places where public health actually work with other government agencies in meaningful and effective ways?

Bhatia: I’m not an expert and haven’t evaluated the healthy-cities movement, which was founded by a group of public health thinkers around the time of the 1986 Ottawa Charter on Health Promotion, which states everything I’m saying in terms of action much more eloquently. And anyone who’s interested in the topic really should go and read that document two or three times, because it created a very clear blueprint.

I would say, just in a cursory scan of the healthy-cities work, while there’s been collaboration, I think the targets of collaboration often have not been very structural; they have been much more downstream. So, while a lot of the collaboration exists, it needs to move upstream to some of the more structural things, like integration. I don’t know of anyone, really, who’s challenged that one.

Shandas: Can you touch on what health impact assessment is and how it actually fits into this healthy-cities movement, or how it fits into the larger challenges?

Bhatia: The health impact assessment was called for in the Ottawa Charter in 1986. And it’s very simple. Health impact assessment is a variety of tools and processes, a toolbox of things that really serves a value or assumption. It’s the idea that when we make a public policy – a social decision; when we make choices together, we should consider how those choices affect our health. When an individual or family picks a house, they ask, “Is this going to create a healthy environment for us?” Health is something that we consider very intimately on an individual and family basis. We need to be making the same type of consideration on a social or collected basis.

So, there is no one way to do health-impact assessment. I think the best health impact assessments are answering questions that are politically relevant to a particular place where stakeholders are engaged in the particular public policy. Good heath impact assessments use the best quantitative and qualitative methods available. And there’s a whole bunch of research tools on the shelf right now that just isn’t being applied to health policy issues.

Health impact assessments should be comprehensive. If you do a health impact assessment and you focus on one health issue, you’re likely to get the wrong answer because, ultimately, choices in social decisions are about tradeoffs; and if you have many health issues related to a public policy, you need a comprehensive analysis in order to understand how to maximize health.

Those are some of the characteristics. Again, there’s lots of ways to do it. You can formally integrate health assessment in an environmental impact assessment process as the National Environmental Policy Act calls for. You can do a voluntary health impact assessment as a collaborative process. But the key thing is bringing the best scientific and community evidence to understand policy levels and questions in a place so that health is considered in the decision-making process.

Shandas: San Francisco has done quite a bit with health impact assessment. What came together in San Francisco that made government agencies consider more seriously the application of health impact assessment on particular projects?

Bhatia: The first health impact assessment showed how our Health Department was able to recognize some opportunity that already existed. It was a 1999 assessment on the living wage. We had a city that was generally favorable on progressive labor policy, and it proposed a living wage for workers under city contracts. Community advocates and political leaders were trying to promote this, while some economic interests were saying, “Well, businesses can’t afford to pay a living wage.”

While it’s important to weigh economic impacts, health officials advocated also weighing health impacts that could provide a counterweight to any economic decision. We saw a tremendous amount of evidence on the relationship between income and health that could be applied to do a very robust quantitative analysis. And then we realized that nobody knew that this was on the menu of public health. And so we went and talked to our legislators and said, “If we did this analysis, would it be helpful?” And they said, “Yes.” And then we said, “Well, why don’t you have us do that analysis?”

That experience taught a lot of lessons, foremost that policy makers and legislators don’t know what public health can provide and how health impact assessment can bring evidence to bear on their decisions. Health officials can’t wait to be asked to do health assessment. We can’t do it by ourselves as a research exercise. We need to engage with decision makers who can use the results of our analysis.

The next step was learning more about health impact assessment internationally. We said, “Let’s try to introduce community residents in San Francisco to health impact assessment.” And over the course of about a year, we had very short workshops in different parts of the city. We found an organization that was willing to host the workshops. And we said, “You give us a policy you’re already working on,” and people suggested farmers markets, green schoolyards, and housing subsidies. And we said, “You bring together a variety of allies and advocates you work with, and we’ll do a very brief participatory health impact assessment – a very different screening kind of assessment – and then we’ll see what the next-steps are.”

Through these dialogues, we simply helped people to understand that the policies they were advocating were connected to health outcomes in very broad ways. And we had to think about how making those health connections explicit would be helpful to their policy struggles. That effort introduced our communities to the idea and gave them the sense that you had a health department that was willing to do more than they were being asked to do.

Land-use planning is displacing people – that’s got to be bad for health.

Some of these groups came back to us about nine months after these workshops and said, “We want you to do a health impact assessment of land-use planning that’s happening in San Francisco.” They said, “Look, this land-use planning is displacing people – that’s got to be bad for health.”

Shandas: Who was this that came to you and asked?

Bhatia: It was PODER (People in Defense of Earth and her Resources), an environmental justice organization. They said, “Hey, Health Department, you’re talking about health impact assessment, and we’ve got a struggle going on. We’ve got people being displaced. We’ve got people losing living-wage jobs and business displacement, and we’ve got gentrification happening. And we don’t think this is really good for our health. We have an alternative; we have a people’s plan for land-use development. Why don’t you do a health impact assessment of our plan, and maybe that’s going to help push our plan forward.”

Over the course of a year, we facilitated a health impact assessment that this organization did on its own. We went to the Planning Department, and the Planning Department said, “Well, look, we understand health impact assessment. We understand what you’re trying to do here, but we don’t want it in the environmental impact process.” They suggested that we do a health impact assessment as a separate process and run it parallel to the environmental impact assessment. They promised to use the information but not to regulate or require compliance based on the findings. The community wasn’t happy about this, but we decided to go forward.

That process went on for a year and a half and produced the Healthy Development Measurement Tool. The outcome of the Eastern Neighborhoods Community Health Impact Assessment process was essentially the policy recommendation that we develop a tool to evaluate land-use projects on health and that we regularly and routinely utilize that tool in the planning process. And that’s exactly what we did. We created the Healthy Development Tool, which is a comprehensive metric, with indicators of community wellbeing, targets for healthy development, and policy design strategies. We’ve begun to apply those measures to the plans that the Planning Department is producing.

Shandas: So you combined community groups, the Planning Department, and the Department of Public Health?

Bhatia: Yes. It’s an evolution. I can’t remember how I imagined health impact assessment going forward six years ago, but we tried something. We got a response from communities. Community members wanted accountability, so it helped us focus. We shifted to using the Environmental Impact Review (EIR) process. While we’ve been able to use EIR, we also realized some of its limitations, and so we’ve shifted again, adapting to what’s working and what’s not working, and where the opportunities are.

Shandas: Do specific projects lend themselves more directly to health impact assessment than others?

Bhatia: You’re raising a really important point. Am I saying that every single public policy should get a health impact assessment? Absolutely not. The goal really is healthy public policy, and assessment is just a means. If you can get to healthy public policy easier and quicker without an assessment, then you should pursue the alternative. At present, though, public health hasn’t had relationships with land-use and transportation planning; we haven’t had many comprehensive health analyses of land-use planning. We don’t know the issues. So, on major land-use planning efforts, I think it’s appropriate to do health impact assessment to identify as many large-scale issues as possible.

Don’t build housing near busy roadways.

However, if you do a few of these assessments, you probably get to the same kind of answers: Don’t build housing near busy roadways, or make sure there’s a park nearby, or a grocery store nearby. You get to some rules, essentially. And then those rules can get translated into general plans, or into zoning codes, or other planning tools that don’t need to be subjects of health impact assessments anymore.
So health impact assessment is a learning tool at this time. Suppose that 30 or 40 years from now, land-use and planning become better integrated with health policy. We may no longer need health impact assessment to make sure that health needs are being put into plans. I’m being optimistic. But there always will be new issues that we must consider, and those then become the subjects of health impact assessments.

I hope that the meaning here is clear. You do health impact assessment where you need to. If the planning director is planning a theater and says, “Look, we know all the health issues; we understand this and we’ve considered them, and here I can prove to you how we’ve considered them,” then we’re fine.

Shandas: Currently, health impact assessment acts as an additional, voluntary level of analysis. It is not mandated at the moment. Should it be?

Bhatia: I think that to the greatest extent feasible, health impact assessment needs to be integrated into existing impact assessment processes. First, there are impact assessment processes that are currently mandated under law. So, because they’re mandated, they have regulatory strength and teeth. Our community members criticize health impact assessment because it doesn’t have any teeth. That’s one reason to integrate it into existing processes. Second, you don’t want to duplicate existing processes because it’s terribly inefficient. Third, health impact assessment is not unrelated to environmental assessment or social impact assessment. Health impact assessment builds upon those other assessments. When I look at air-quality impacts, from roadways, I am using traffic to predict air quality, and air quality to predict health effects. So if I have traffic analysis and air-quality analysis within an environmental review, why duplicate it? In fact, I need the analysis of environmental conditions in order to do my health impact assessment.

What are health officials really trying to do? We are trying to get planners and other people in other fields to understand and consider, value, and use human health. Public health agencies don’t own the

. . . if I really want planners to have ownership of health issues, I need to use their tools.

planning code or make the planning decisions; the planners do. So, if I really want planners to have ownership of health issues, I need to use their tools. I don’t need to call up and say, “I’ve got a new tool; use it.” I need to integrate my work with their tools. We have been integrating our tools into the Planning Department’s environmental impact assessment of air quality, noise, and pedestrian safety issues.

Of course, some people have concerns about integrating health assessment with environmental impact assessment that doesn’t necessarily provide useful information. But that’s an issue of poor practice. We have the ability to do integrated environmental impact assessment right. Perhaps one of the problems – or one of our frustrations – with impact assessment is that it hasn’t adequately considered human welfare issues. By doing an integrated analysis, we may have the best of both worlds.

Shandas: Locally, the draft EIS for the Columbia River Crossing is being rolled out for public comment. It’s Oregon’s largest transportation project in the history of the state. Given your experience, what advice do you have for the planning agencies and the public health agencies involved?

Bhatia: Roadway projects are some of the ripest projects for doing health impact assessment in an integrated approach with the environmental impact statements. And they’re ripe for a couple of reasons. They’re ripe because of the kinds of research being done on the built-environment and health. The research on transportation systems and health is the strongest: the most robust and the most quantitative.

The opportunity is there because the National Environmental Policy Act is very, very clear that when a project affects the human environment, the health effects of changes in the human environment need to be analyzed. The esteemed William Rehnquist supported the position I just gave you. And so you’ve got a legal mandate. Unfortunately, public health agencies have never put this mandate into practice. Nevertheless, I think that the time is right.

Some of the issues that you can analyze with existing tools in a major transportation project like the Columbia River Crossing include local effects on air quality. These transportation projects – roadway projects – generally increase traffic, which means they increase local concentrations of air pollutants along the freeways. You can analyze those effects with dispersion models; we can use those response functions to analyze the indirect health effects.

The existing models look at noise and at sensitive populations. People who might be already living near these roadway corridors are often lower-income, ethnic minorities. So we have guidance for environmental-justice analysis that could be brought in.

We can look at effects on physical activity and pedestrian injuries. When you have these roadway projects, you’re not only increasing traffic on the roadway itself, but you’re increasing traffic going to the roadway and going from the roadway, increasing arterial traffic. Roadway volumes are one of the most important contributing factors to pedestrian injuries, walk-ability, safety, and the rates of walking in our neighborhoods.

Finally, we can look at social cohesion. This is something that the Federal Highway Administration used to be more attentive to in the 1990s. When you expand these roadways and increase traffic, you create a barrier for getting from one place to another. In a sense, you’re therefore creating a barrier between social communities.

For example, what if you double traffic along an arterial? On one side is a household and on the other side is their church. Maybe an elderly person who lives in the household is dependent on walking to church. Maybe the traffic prevents that person from going to church. Whether a church, a community center, or a park, we have to be very attentive to how these transportation projects affect access and to all of the health effects that depend on access.

I really hope that people can get together to articulate the need for health impact assessment for the Columbia River Crossing. The scientific and technical ability exists to do it, and the analysis would not be complete without it.

Greetings from the Editor, Summer 2008

This note by Matthew Kaufmann salutes one of IMS’s oldest friends and supporters.

Craig Wollner
Editor in Chief

Fred Rosenbaum remembers when the Institute of Portland Metropolitan Studies was just an idea that grew out of other urban programs at Portland State.

“I think it has created for itself a far bigger agenda than it started out as,” said Rosenbaum, 82, a founding member of the board of the Institute. “It went from minor issues to major issues; the economy being a major thing, urban growth boundaries, urban renewal areas.”

Rosenbaum served on the Institute’s board from its inception in 1992 until he retired earlier this year, when the Institute presented Rosenbaum with an award of appreciation for his years of service.

“I hated to quit, but I’m up to here,” he said, bringing his hand parallel to his forehead. A recent heart attack and a 13-year battle with cancer has led Rosenbaum to scale back in his schedule, but it is not in his nature to give up all of his public service endeavors.

Rosenbaum’s dedication to his community stems partly from the fact that he almost didn’t make it to the United States. He escaped out of a school window at age 12 in order to avoid the Nazi secret police in his native Austria. He eventually ended up Stateside and began a life of public service. He served in the Pacific Theater in World War II and eventually rose up to rank of brigadier general in the Oregon National Guard. He started at Reed College in Portland after the War before graduating from PSU. Rosenbaum stayed in Portland and in 1957 started an insurance and investment business, now known as Rosenbaum Financial, where he still works today with his son Mark. His bio reads as almost a directory of reputable institutes and service organizations in Portland, and his office wall features dozens of plaques and pictures of him with former governors and other dignitaries.

Among other accomplishments, Rosenbaum was the chairman of the Housing Authority of Portland for 13 years and served as chairman on the advisory committee to the School of Urban and Public Affairs at PSU. He also started Camp Rosenbaum, which for 38 years has given underprivileged children a chance to attend camp at the coast.

Rosenbaum said he still makes phone calls daily in hopes of making a difference. He remains passionate about issues in Portland as well and sees the Institute as a catalyst in city improvements in emergency planning, public housing and helping lower income families. Though Rosenbaum will no longer be formally serving the Institute, he will continue to serve his community.

“I went to a counselor for a year and half to learn how to retire. She retired, but I didn’t,” he said. “I just have to keep going as long as the dear Lord lets me.”

— Matthew Kaufmann

Metroscape Rocks


With all the rivers and mountains surrounding us, the Portland metro area offers many interesting opportunities for rockhounding. Shiny agates and jaspers hide in most of the waterways, but only a few places contain sizable gravel bars that are continually productive. Similarly, many of the basalt flows that blanket the area contain interesting crystals, but only a few spots provide enough material to keep a family expedition interesting.

This article contains five different “rock walks” you can take advantage of for family fun. The information is gathered from my 2007 book, Gem Trails of Washington, and my upcoming rewrite of Gem Trails of Oregon, due out in late 2008.

If you have a Global Positioning Satellite (GPS), you can enter the coordinates and make sure you are exactly on the spot, but in most cases, such accuracy isn’t really necessary. As the year stretches on and the rivers and creeks get lower, they will expose even more locales worth checking, but each of these spots offers good access and predictable results.

These are just a few of the spots around the Portland metro area where you can do some easy rockhounding. If you want a harder workout, complete with heavy sledgehammer and gads and chisels, Central Oregon has dozens of free, public locales for heavy-duty work. Both of the Gem Trails guides offer more locales to choose from, and all have been recently field-checked to make sure you have legal access to the locales.

The sites listed here are for easier collecting, and perfect for anyone who wants to go for a walk and come home with a few pretty rocks in their pockets. If you are new to rockhounding, consider joining a local rock club for help identifying your finds, for assistance with cutting and polishing, or for ideas for further adventures.

Rock Walks:
Clackamette Park
Nehalem River
Five Islands
Washougal River

Garret Romaine, MBA, is a leader in the local and national technical writing industry and Associate Fellow with Society for Technical Communication. He writes for the Gold Prospectors Association of America and has authored two rockhounding guides covering Washington and Oregon.

Clackamette ParkLook for agate and jasper at this easy, urban setting. Gravels accumulate under the bridge and on most exposed riverbanks in this area. Although the best gravels are along the Clackamas River, many of these rocks are simply reworked from the Willamette drainage. If you get all the way to Memaloose further up the Clackamas, you can make your own comparison.

There is an interesting collection of material here. Most of the gravels are smooth, round and clean. Look for red and yellow jasper, sometimes in chunks as large as a child’s fist. The best way to tell if the jasper is hard enough to slice or polish is to look for small, half-moon shaped craters where it shows fresh chips. These fractures are a sure sign the rock is very hard. If you see a porous surface, with lots of little holes, the rock probably won’t polish up and shine. We call these samples “leaverite” – leave ‘er right where you found ‘er.

The agate here ranges from small, rare pieces of red-orange carnelian to more plentiful, and larger, clear pieces. Other forms of quartz, such as a milky-white chalcedony, will also tumble well. Mostly this is gray-to-black river rock, somewhere between andesite and basalt. The rare petrified wood is from multiple species, and these are the hardest pieces that have survived a long river run from valley deposits in Scio, Sweet Home, or the Calapooia drainage. The polish can be striking. Identifying petrified wood takes a little experience, but you are basically looking for lines and angles. You may have to toss aside several small pieces of actual driftwood before you find one that is turned to stone.
Nearby gravel deposits emerge during low water at various places. Look for a good spot on the south bank of the Clackamas between here and the Carver Bridge. Topo maps show many gravel pits in the area, but most are still active.

Clackamette Park map
(click to enlarge)

By late summer the Clackamas River is low, calm, and easy to navigate near the mouth, so a boat, canoe, or kayak expedition might be interesting. You might be able to reach some areas that have seen fewer rockhounds.

At Oregon City, follow the signs off I-205 to SE 82nd Ave/McLoughlin. Look for signs to Clackamette Park as you angle to the river. Park in the far lot and work your way up the south bank of the Clackamas.

Material: Tumbler rock

Roads: Easy, any vehicle

Season: Any

GPS: 45.3722, -122.6027; 22 ft

Camping: No but nearby RV park

Tools: Geology pick at most

Nearby: End of Oregon Trail


xMemaloose BridgeLook for agates and jasper in the river gravels near the Memaloose Bridge, above Estacada. The agate is not plentiful, but it is hard and ranges to a nice powder blue. Site A is just below the road on a steep trail that leads to the river edge. Stop and park in the pull-out near the bridge. If the water is low enough, look for clear agate and cloudy calcite pieces, plus pale white zeolites in matrix piled up in the river gravels.

There is an old zeolite locale up the road about 0.65 miles from the turnoff leading over bridge, labeled as Site B. Jon Gladwell published this site years ago, and it is just about all mined out. Check the big boulders beneath the cut and you might get lucky. Look for sprays of white stilbite and fine needles. If you really like zeolites, head back to the highway and continue on up towards Ripplebrook to the big bluff where Fish Creek Road heads south and hammer around in the cliffs there.

memaloose map
(click to enlarge)

At first glance, the surrounding geology is mostly barren basalt, but there are seams and veins throughout. Check any fresh road cut or slumped material. For tumbler material, look for more big gravel deposits nearby. There are some excellent spots to check, but only a kayaker or rafter could reach them, because they are on the other side of the river.

From Portland, drive east on OR 224 to Estacada and proceed about 8 more miles to the Memaloose Bridge. Cross over the bridge and immediately look for a place to park. Work your way to the river and start searching the gravels for agate. The jasper runs tan, yellow, and red, with many pieces hard enough to polish. The zeolite locale is further up this road, about 0.65 miles from the turnoff at OR 224.

Material: Agate, quartz, zeolite, calcite

Roads: Easy, any vehicle

Season: Avoid winter

GPS: A: 45.1925, -122.2102; 700 ft
B: 45.1954, -122.2198; 989 ft

Camping: Yes (open USFS)

Maps: Mt. Hood National Forest

Tools: Geology pick

Nearby: Bagby Hot Springs


Nehalem River Clear CreekFossil concretions and jasper are common in the Nehalem, but the prized material here is reddish-orange carnelian agate, found scattered in the gravels of the riverbed. This locale is actually a “back-door” opportunity to collect carnelian from Clear Creek, long known as the primary source for the Nehalem’s best agate. The problem is that most of Clear Creek is off-limits to collecting, being private timberland. The best alternative now is to check near the mouth of Clear Creek where it enters the Nehalem.

This is a spot to save for later in the season when the water is lower. There are only limited dry gravel accumulations here, so be prepared to put on your rubber boots and slowly walk the shallow river. If it’s warm enough, you can wade in sturdy sandals and short pants. Try to keep the sun in front of you if it happens to be out that day, and the agate should light up like pieces of glass in the murky water.

Some of the private timberland above here opens up during hunting season, but even then the good quarry is not open for collecting. The Mt. Hood Rock Club has organized trips up Clear Creek in the past, so when their schedule comes out each spring, be sure to check. Tim Fisher usually publishes the master schedule on his website by the end of March. Barring this, your best bet is to walk the Nehalem below where Clear Creek enters, and wherever else you can get access. I have found carnelian from Clear Creek all the way to Vinemaple, but I haven’t had good luck past Elsie. There are a lot of fences and private land to steer clear of up here. On the plus side, the severe flood of 2007 may have formed some productive new gravel bars all the way to the river’s mouth. There are some excellent campsites on the lower Nehalem, so if you just want to explore the river for access points, that could make for a great car trip.

Nehalem River map
(click to enlarge)

Also search for concretions wherever you go. These are the round sandstone balls that look like cannonballs. They are formed when some piece of organic material washes around long enough in lime-rich mud to get a coating started. That muddy blob gets continually sloshed in the muck until it forms into a round ball so it can roll better. Concretions sometimes hold an entire crab inside, but most are barren. Cracking them is an art to itself, and you might want to search the Internet for a few tips. When the water is low, you can sometimes spot concretions just waiting to be popped out of the bedrock. Also, keep an eye out for sharp-edged agates and jaspers, which may be the remnants of Indian artifacts and are legal to add to your collection if you are collecting rocks and minerals to start with.

From Portland, drive out US 26 to Timber Junction. Turn north onto Vernonia Road, and start watching for the river alongside. There is a long bridge over Clear Creek, which comes in from the left and is marked by Clear Creek Road. Just past the road there is a bridge across the Nehalem, with a good parking spot and decent river access.

Nehalem River RocksMaterial: Tumbler

Roads: Easy; any vehicle

Season: Any

GPS: A: 45.8151, -123.2815; 680 ft

Camping: Stub Stewart State Park

Tools: Geology pick; waders

Nearby: Jewell elk herd


Five IslandsYou can find excellent pieces of agate, jasper, and petrified wood throughout the gravels of the lower Willamette River. By late summer, the water usually recedes enough to expose extensive gravel bars. However, anything you can reach by car will get picked over fairly fast. One answer is to mount a two-day, 15-mile boating expedition and float your way to the more remote areas.

Four of us launched a pair of two-man canoes at Wheatland Ferry and paddled for nine miles to reach Five Islands. It took about five hours to get there, because we stopped at every promising gravel bar along the way and did well. Not only were the pieces large, they were plentiful. We found impressive chunks of agate, including a fantastic red-orange carnelian, littering the gravels. Petrified wood of all varieties was easy to pick up, sometimes quite large, and most of it was hard enough to take an excellent polish. There is primitive camping all along the river here.

Five Islands map
(click to enlarge)

We pulled out the next day at San Salvador, after first stopping at Candiana Bar just above the take-out point. There, too, we found plentiful, excellent material. In 2007 two kids in McMinnville were featured with Jay Leno on The Tonight Show, after finding a nine-inch mastodon tooth in the Yamhill River drainage. We looked for bones, tusks and teeth on our trip, but didn’t find anything. It’s probably just as well – you need a paleontological permit to legally collect vertebrate fossils, and you should expect to turn over just about anything you find. Contact the Rice Museum in Hillsboro if you find something you need to report. A journey all the way to where the Yamhill River empties in might make a lot more sense for better fossils.

This is a boat trip only, although there are several gravel deposits accessible by car, and both landings feature some agate picking if you can’t make a river run. If you’re a power boater, take I-5 to San Salvador and put your craft in, zip upriver about six miles, and look for immense gravels on your left. Get out, explore, zip back to the landing and go home. Or, make a weekend of it: drop a car, drive to Wheatland Ferry and put in, and head for Five Islands. If you don’t make it this far on Day 1 it’s no big deal; there is extensive camping on numerous gravel bars and islands. On Day 2, paddle to San Salvador. If you just have a car, take a day trip to Wheatland, search the gravels there, and then drive up to San Salvador. I saw several excellent gravel bars on the canoe trip, and one had tire tracks, while another had a full parking lot, so I know there are more opportunities to search the lower Willamette by car.

Petrified WoodMaterial: Vast agate, jasper; some wood

Roads: Via river only

Season: Late summer

GPS: 45.1762, -123.0144; 75 ft

Camping: Yes: islands are open

Tools: Geology pick; canoe

Nearby: St Paul Rodeo


Washougal RiverThis area is technically along the Washougal River, but I suspect the material comes from older Columbia River gravel deposits left over from when the river changed channels. There is a small mining district above Washougal with some interesting mineralization, but it is closed to the public and you can’t collect up there. So stick to the river.

The Columbia River contains gravels from British Columbia, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, and you would expect that only the hardest and best material would make it this far. Look for gem quality jasper and agate, plus rounded, polished petrified wood that originates far up river. Most of the good agate is smaller in size, but there are zones of larger cobbles and boulders where larger material lurks.

Washougal River map
(click to enlarge)

There are two spots that provide access to the gravels in Washougal. The first is a skateboard park called Sportsman Park, and the second is Oak Park. Each locale has well-marked paths, limited facilities, and parking. Oak Park is a little closer to the Columbia, and it looked like the gravels were more extensive. Southeast Washougal River Road parallels the river going north for a ways, reaching miles into the hills. If you like river drives, go further east and try the back road along the Klickitat River – it curls around and empties into Goldendale, making a nice loop.

This doesn’t have to be a “summer-only” spot, as long as the Washougal isn’t at flood stage. However, the nicer the weather, the more enjoyable wading around looking for pretty rocks can be. Use your own discretion; fall brings salmon carcasses rotting in the shallows. Fascinating as that sight can be on television, it loses some luster up close and personal.

Take WA 14 from Vancouver to Washougal. Go into town from the 5th St exit, and wind around town until you are on 3rd and you see a bridge coming up across the Washougal. Take the immediate right, west of the bridge, into Sportsman Park. Oak Park is also along the Washougal, but is accessed via WA 14.

Material: Agate, jasper, petrified wood

Roads: Easy, any vehicle

Season: Avoid winter; fall brings salmon carcasses

GPS: 45.61712, -122.42792; 52ft

Camping: No, try USFS land up the Washougal River

Tools: Geology pick

Nearby: Lacamas Lake


Ten minutes from Vancouver, WA the small town of Camas sits at the juncture of the Columbia and Washougal rivers. Founded and developed as a mill town, today Camas is building on its small-town charm, historic downtown and proximity to both Portland and Vancouver to redefine its role in the metroscape.

Camas was incorporated in 1906 but its history as a paper town dates back to the late 1800s when prominent Portland resident and publisher of the Oregonian, Henry Pittock, recognized the site’s potential. In 1883, Pittock purchased 2,600 acres of land at the juncture of the rivers where he opened a paper mill. Although the mill’s ownership changed a number of times over the years, its importance as both an employer and a center of community life had played a seminal role in shaping the history of Camas.

By 1911, the mill, which has seen a number of owners over the years, had grown to include seven machines and 450 employees who earned a combined $25,000 in wages each month. A year later, electric power replaced steam power at the mill when NE Electric built a substation in Camas. In 1914, the second largest paper manufacturer in the country was formed when Crown Columbia and Willamette Paper merged, forming Crown Willamette. The next 20 years were a busy time for Camas. In 1914, the town’s first high school was built and a stage line connected the town to Vancouver. Six years later, Camas had grown to nearly 2,000 residents. By 1940, the number had more than doubled to 4,433. To accommodate the growth suburban style, settlements grew up on either side of the town center. The paper mill continued to act as the town’s main employment center. In 1941, the mill employed 2,300 and had an annual payroll of more than $4,000,000. That year a brochure published by the Camas Chamber of Commerce reported that 70% of city taxes were paid by employees of the mill and “seven of every ten married male employees who walk from the mill gates at the end of their shifts go to the security of homes they own or are buying” (A Brief History of Camas, Washington: Where Pioneers Hewed a Town from the Forest and Lived to See it Grow Up Around a Paper Mill by William D. Welsh, 1941). During WW II, the paper mill joined the war effort. Ship rudders were manufactured in the machine shop and used on ships built in Portland and Vancouver.

In recent years, the role of Camas in the metroscape has changed in response to the mill’s decreasing importance as an employment center. Camas is growing both demographically and geographically. Since 1900, the town’s population increased from 6,442 to 15,360 while two land annexations, including the addition of North Dwyer Creek in 2000, increased the town’s physical size. Many of the newcomers are finding homes in the new developments that cover the eastern hills overlooking the town. With views of Mt. Hood and easy access to both Vancouver and Portland, these neighborhoods are highly desirable.

One valuable asset Camas has embraced is its historic downtown. Extending several blocks from the Mill doors, Camas’s Main Street is lined with boutiques, antique shops, day spas, restaurants, and a historic movie theater housed in pristine storefronts. Mature trees tower over the benches; public art pieces and memorials line the wide and well manicured sidewalks. On the first Friday of each month visitors can join Camas residents as businesses along Main Street open their doors for an art walk. The challenge for Camas now is to maintain its small town charm while embracing growth.





Liza Mylott is a graduate student in the PSU Urban Studies PhD program.


Air Quality

Air quality and global climate change are issues of growing importance to communities across the United States. Greenhouse gases generated by transportation have been identified as a major contributor to global climate change. In 2005, the Research and Technology Innovation Administration at the U.S. Department of Transportation reported that highway vehicle miles traveled (VMT) accounted for 81% of the total U.S. transportation energy consumption. VMT is expected to increase 60% from 2,952 billion miles traveled in 2005 to 4,733 billion miles traveled in 2030. During that period, U.S. carbon dioxide emissions are expected to increase by 35%. In an effort to combat the effects of greenhouse gas emissions, particularly carbon dioxide, and to meet emissions regulations embedded in clean air legislation, many communities are promoting the reduction of VMT. As gas prices rise, more people are turning to public transportation and bicycles while trying to reduce time spent behind the wheel. Efforts to reduce VMT are proving somewhat successful in the metroscape. In 1992 the average VMT for both Portland and the U.S. was 20.2. Portland’s VMT has held fairly steady since then. In 2005 the VMT was 20.3; by 2006 the number had dropped to just 20. Nationally, efforts have been less successful. Since 1992 the national VMT has been steadily increasing; in 2005 it was 23.8.

vehicle miles traveled
Sources: ODOT; US DOT