Port, Audubon Society deal returns Government Island to natural habitat
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT Carrie Butler, a Port of Portland mitigation site specialist, surveys a Government Island meadow that will be replanted to resemble a native Willamette Valley prairie. The port recently agreed to the restoration, along with improvements to the Columbia Slough and nearby neighborhoods. In exchange, the city made it easier to develop four port-owned industrial parcels, including sites next to runways.

Two different islands, two vastly different outcomes.

Out on west Hayden Island next to Jantzen Beach, the Audubon Society of Portland has sparred with the Port of Portland for 15 years - and counting - to block development of marine trade terminals.

A few miles upstream on the Columbia River, the port recently agreed to mount a major environmental restoration of Government Island, plus other improvements to the Columbia Slough and residential areas near Portland International Airport. In exchange, the city of Portland, with the Audubon Society's blessing, agreed to make it easier for the port to develop four 'shovel-ready' industrial parcels near the airport.

'What I think they agreed to has a good chance of leaving the landscape better than they found it,' says Bob Sallinger, conservation director for the Audubon Society, who has clashed with the port for years on its west Hayden Island proposals.

The four parcels include prime frontage near airport runways that could prove attractive to aircraft maintenance or air freight operations, says Chris Corich, the port's general manager for long-term planning. Altogether, they provide 267 acres for potential job-generating projects on the western edge of the airport near Northeast 33rd Avenue and Marine Drive.

'I think it's going to give the airport flexibility to develop properties when the market demand is there,' Corich says. Though the market is slow now, he says, there's no developable land remaining at two competing airports in the Seattle area.

The four parcels include some valuable grassland, but Government Island has more potential for habitat, Sallinger says. 'Government Island is one of the crown jewels of our urban wildlife refuge system.'

The port agreed to restore two acres on Government Island for every acre it develops for industrial uses, starting with a 50-acre parcel - before any industrial parcels are developed.

In addition, the port will spend $50,000 a year for the next 25 years to do environmental enhancements at the Columbia Slough and nearby neighborhoods. 'Fifty thousand dollars worth of trees is pretty significant,' Sallinger says.

The package deal, announced April 13, marks the completion of the airport's long-range development plan, known as the Airport Futures project. Three years in the making, Airport Futures required 87 meetings of a 30-member advisory group and its subcommittees, and more than 130 briefings of stakeholders.

No third runway

At the outset, Sallinger says, the port took the most contentious issue - a long-discussed third airport runway - off the table. Environmentalists feared the runway would destroy part of the Columbia Slough, and neighbors feared the added noise it would bring.

With the adoption of the Airport Futures plan, the third runway is no longer on the books, at least for a quarter-century, Corich says. 'Our current thinking is the third runway, if it's ever needed, is beyond 2035, and that's a big 'if.' '

On April 27, a team of biologists and other natural resource specialists headed out to Government Island to begin plotting the restoration.

Government Island is actually a chain of islands totaling some 2,200 acres, nearly three times the size of the undeveloped west Hayden Island. It's accessible only to boaters, who flock to its sandy beaches during the summer. But thousands of motorists cross directly over the island daily, as they traverse to and from Washington on Interstate 205 via the Glenn Jackson Bridge.


Tribune Photo: Christopher Onstott • The restoration project, managed by the Xerces Society, will bring back native plants to part of Government Island. The port hopes the restoration won't attract more Canada geese to the area, because they pose a safety hazard for air traffic.

Used for pasture

The Lewis and Clark expedition camped on the island, which they called Dimond Island, in 1805, encountering 15 Indians who arrived in two canoes, according to a history compiled by the Port of Portland.

From around 1824 to 1849, the island provided winter forage for ox teams of the Hudson's Bay Co., which operated a nearby sawmill. Employees often called it Goose Island.

The U.S. government appropriated the island in 1850, using it to provide hay and pasture land for horses kept at Fort Vancouver. That's when the current name for the island was adopted.

Government Island's original terrain was largely sand dunes or wetlands, and was submerged under the Columbia River much of the year. That changed in the 1930s, when a series of dams were erected to tame the Columbia River and provide hydro power for industry and residents.

The restoration will convert part of the island to grassland that once was common in the Willamette Valley, providing habitat for species such as the western meadowlark - Oregon's state bird - and streaked horned larks, which are a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act, Sallinger says.

'Grasslands are the most endangered habitat left in the Willamette Valley,' he says. 'Literally 99 percent of the grasslands that we had historically are gone.'

Biologists inspecting the restoration site last week found several species of nonnative grasses, blackberries and other invasive weeds, and a string of cottonwood trees.

Counting butterflies

The port hired Portland's Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation to manage the restoration. To start, Xerces will conduct a survey of bees, butterflies and other pollinators this summer, says Scott Black, the group's executive director.

Those species are the lowest level of the food chain and help propagate plants, so they are a gauge of biodiversity. They also don't migrate very far during their life cycle, Black says.

The project will be used to study the benefits of converting a parcel back to native vegetation, over an eight-year period. This will be the largest study of its type in the Northwest, Black says.

It's not clear yet what plants will be added to simulate a native Willamette Valley prairie.

One species the port doesn't want to attract is Canada geese, which pose a safety hazard for airplanes. Geese favor the current meadow, as evidenced by droppings everywhere.

Sallinger praises the port's handling of its Airport Futures project and the resulting package deal. The contrast with Audubon's long-running spat with the port on west Hayden Island is not lost on anyone.

But the port's aviation and industrial divisions have different goals, different staff, and different financing, much like differences in style among Portland city bureaus.

On west Hayden Island, the port and Audubon are waging a classic jobs vs. the environment duel. But the Government Island deal, involving the city, port, Audubon and neighborhood leaders, could bring new industrial jobs to Portland and significant ecological gains.

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