by Sarah Taylor

Wildlife, in what is now known as the Portland Harbor and Forest Park, have made this stretch of river, marsh and forest home for thousands of years. Animals migrated between the various ecosystems to find food and water, to reproduce and to nest. They lived in harmony with the people who lived in the area, who assured their well being as part of their own seasonal life cycles.

For months, prior to the meeting, I tried to track down any groups that might be monitoring wildlife in the general area with minimal results.   A few organizations have, at times, monitored a specific animal but there was never a far reaching attempt to regularly monitor the wildlife of this area.  Although wildlife is dependent on the entire watershed, the area has been divided into separate zones which include Forest Park, the river, the industrial zone and North Portland sloughs and lakes.  In no materials, that I saw, was the area presented as a whole system or a watershed wide system.   

Bob Sallinger, of Portland Audubon, has monitored the osprey for many years.   He reports that their recovery since the banning of DTT, has been significant with stronger eggs and a resulting increase in population.   OSU monitors the wild bees and a group in Linnton monitors the red-tailed frog.  Another person, tracts the nests of eagles in Forest Park.  Baltimore Woods delights in observations of a bird but has no systematic monitoring system. All these efforts are widely individual passions of interest and show no sign of a systemic, collaborative effort to monitor the areas wildlife.

Fish and Wildlife once monitored river otters for signs of toxic chemicals and did not find them in any alarming quantities.   Willamette River Keepers monitors mussels but has no obvious presence in the North Harbor.  The city once did a wildlife inventory of Forest Park, which did not take a watershed approach to their needs.

DEQ monitors sites related to the superfund clean-up that are very limited and specific.  The EPA’s study of the river was limited to a very few fish species and to the sediment only.  None of these studies are collaborative or comprehensive.

The Columbia Slough Watershed, although arguably a part of the greater Willamette River Watershed and the North Harbor, are in most ways not integrated into the greater watershed.

Historical and Cultural Roots

If one was to examine older maps of the area, we would see a diverse landscape of braided streams, creeks, wetlands, oak and evergreen forests draining into the Willamette River.  We would see the place where the Willamette and all its history connects to the Columbia River and eventually the Pacific Ocean.  It does not appear as separate landscapes and entities but as one life supporting system.  The indigenous people, had many types of canoes used to maneuver the diverse systems and seasons.  Wildlife was dependent on the connection of all of these systems, including the human one.

The myth of the homestead act

Most of this watershed was given in large tracts of 350 to 700 acres to wealthy individuals from the east coast.  Later immigrants and people with less means bought small farms from these handful of wealthy investors.  Although most of the original farmers and business owners were happy to farm and fish and live in new river villages, the large industrial powers who made many of the original homestead land claims had other things in mind.  They wanted railroads and lots of them.  They wanted them on both sides of the river and made two cross peninsula train lines cutting the heart of St Johns in half.   The railroads needed to fill in the wetlands, lakes and rivers.  They dug and bulldozed and dumped until the landscape became unrecognizable to anyone; let alone the wildlife.  The small river towns were annexed when most people who lived there did not have the right or means to votes.  The new annexed communities of Portland were turned into an “Industrial sanctuary” in the middle of the wildlife sanctuary.   

Homes for people / homes for wildlife

The area critical for wildlife habitat in the Portland Harbor watershed was also a place of human communities for thousands of years.  Through a process of annexation, removal, destruction, eminent domain and urban planning schemes, virtually every river village was destroyed.  Once the people were moved and displaced, the path to habitat destruction and toxic waste dumps could move forward with few barriers.  The plan had the blessing of numerous city hall administrations, including the current one.  The entire community of Guild’s Lake was destroyed.  Linnton, a town prior to Portland, was given to ODOT and George Hammer of Hammer Steele.  The dairy farms and fruit orchards were given to industry.  The removal of the river communities led for the destruction of the ecosystem as a whole and largely dismissed the needs of wildlife. 

Currently the “Cut” in North Portland, is home and host to hundreds of people camping and gathering outdoors.  This proposed swath of green connecting the Willamette and Columbia River, for both humans and wildlife is being destroyed.  Oil and gas trains, known as “Bomb Trains” or “Blast Zone” Trains pass through. It is reported that thirty-five trains pass a day.  This one concession to the cuts and tunnels pushed on North Portland, without consent, was this promised swath of walking path and green.  The city plans to sell and develop it.  The people and wildlife who cling to this space, will move on, as they always have.

A way to the river

Most wildlife must get to the river or an accompanying creek, lake or wetland.  Access to the river was effectively destroyed by railroads and highways.  Red-legged frogs are killed by the hundreds, salmon can not find a way home, beaver are chopped up in the navigational channel.  Pesticides kills bees and dragon flies.  Big trees are cut down by ever increasing developers.  Wildlife and people have almost no access to the river.  Portland digs in its heels and refuses to see the river or the lakes and creeks as part of the park; as part of their defense against climate change and forest fire and earthquake damage.  They know the wet, swampy connection to the forest will save their lives.  They know that if its good for wildlife, its ultimately good for people but no one really talks about it. 

Suggestions/ moving forward

At the end of the meeting, it was suggested that the many invested partners agree on a platform to protect, monitor and advocate for wildlife (someone is writing it up)

The platform includes:

  1. A riparian zone of at least 100 feet
  2. Enforcement of tree laws
  3. Inclusion of key ecological features in industrial zones – rain gardens, bike trails, eco-roofs, wildlife patches, places for employees to walk and sit outside, native plants, etc.
  4. Access to the river
  5. Connecting greenways and trails
  6. Salmon resting areas as prescribed by fish and wildlife
  7. Nesting and perching areas for birds.
  8. Elimination of DEQ pollution permits
  9. Daylighting streams and lakes.  Opening up creeks in Forest Park for migration
  10. Ponds on forest side of highway
  11. Diversify employment zones to include small, ecological businesses

Our goal was to work on these and then try to present them to city planners.