The Columbia River is the sculptor that carved the Interior Columbia River Basin from the landscape of seven Western states and two Canadian provinces. To Native Americans, explorers, and emigrants, the river represented the lifeblood of this land of promise and plenty. But the land also presented hardship and danger with mountain ranges climbing to over 3,900 m and harsh deserts and scablands scoured clean of productive soils by glaciers and floods.
People have been drawn to the big and beautiful Columbia River Basin for thousands of years. During the last century, natural resource-based industries supported small, growing communities. Today, people still appreciate the basin's rural flavor and quality of life. Yet the area remains sparsely populated, containing 8 percent of the land area in the United States, but only 1.2 percent of the population.
This article explores the story of this land, its many ecosystems, and the challenges faced by natural resource managers. By studying the basin's diversity and complexity, students can learn about common scientific concepts such as the power of water and effects of rain shadows. They can also explore complex social-scientific issues such as conflicts between protecting historic salmon runs and providing inexpensive electricity through hydropower or the reintroduction of top predators, such as the grizzly bear and gray wolf, into the ecosystem.