Confluence of Deschutes, Crooked rivers
An island in Lake Billy Chinook was one of six sites in the country named a national natural landmark last week by the secretary of the Interior.
The Island National Natural Landmark, which is located on a 208-acre plateau where the Deschutes and Crooked rivers come together, is considered "one of the best known and least disturbed examples of native juniper savanna located within the Columbia Plateau."
Paul Patton, interpretive coordinator for the eastern region of Oregon State Parks and Recreation Department, has long been involved with preserving the rugged 208-acre site, which has been closed to the general public since 1997.
"It's one of the very few relatively unaltered pre-European contact sites -- native ecosystems -- of its type in the Western United States," he said, noting that it's a transition area between juniper and sagebrush and the ponderosa pine of higher altitudes.
The plant communities on the island are different from nearby areas, with far fewer juniper trees, he explained. "It's a snapshot in time of what the actual landscape should look like."
"The abundance and proportions of native bunch grasses and wildflowers are nearly equivalent to how the landscape appeared back in the mid-1800s," Patton said.
The best way to observe the island is from the four viewpoints on Mountain View Drive, which is north of the island on the east side of the canyon. "You can observe quite well with binoculars or a spotting scope," he said.
Hikers can take the Tam-a-lau Trail for a view of the island from the end of the peninsula, to the south of the island. Access to the seven-mile trail is from the Upper Deschutes Trailhead area at the third boat landing.
Wildlife, such as deer, bobcats, rodents, songbirds and birds of prey -- "and everything else we expect to see elsewhere" -- might be spotted on the island, he said.
The island is occasionally accessible for educational tours. "It's available for legitimate educational or research activities," said Patton, who helps set up the tours, which require access permits.
Additionally, he compiles the names of people interested in environmental tours, which might take place up to two or three times a year. "It's all based on inquiries," he said, noting that because of the warmer weather conditions, there probably won't be another tour until fall.
Find out more about the educational or environmental tours by calling Patton at 541-923-7551, ext. 21, or contacting the Bureau of Land Management or U.S. Forest Service in Prineville.
The area, which is difficult to access, is always closed to recreational use. "People could get seriously injured and would be in violation of the closure restriction," he said.
From Feb. 15 to April 30 of every year -- reproduction season for birds of prey -- the island is closed to all uses.
"We don't want to disturb eagles or red-tail hawks," he said. "(The island) has particular value to birds of prey as it relates to nesting, breeding and laying eggs."
The other five landmarks named last week included Round Top Butte National Natural Landmark, near Medford; Barfoot Park in southern Arizona; the Golden Fossil Areas near Golden, Colo.; Hanging Lake National Natural Landmark east of Glenwood Springs, Colo.; and Kahlotus Ridgetop National Natural Landmark north of Kahlotus, Wash.
With the naming of two additional landmarks in Oregon, the state now has a total of nine national landmark sites. The others are: Fort Rock State Monument (southeast of La Pine); Horse Ridge Natural Area (east of Bend); Newberry Crater (south of Bend); the John Day Fossil Beds; Crown Point (in the Columbia Gorge); Lawrence Memorial Grassland (west of Shaniko); and the Willamette River Floodplain.
Although the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department monitors and controls access to the island, which is fully within the state park, it is owned and managed by the BLM and the Ochoco National Forest.
"Partners all through the years have recognized the unique status of the island, and the environmental importance of the area, so we just advocated for protective measures to properly manage the resource," said Patton, mentioning the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, the BLM and the USFS.
The national landmark designation won't change the way the island is maintained, he said. "It's purely recognition for the unique nature of the resource."