August 5, 2008

An Island of Colliding Visions

By DEAN BAKER Columbian staff writer

PORTLAND Blue herons, bald eagles and ospreys nest above impenetrable blackberry thickets, punctuated by rusting beer cans, plastic bottles, cast-off grocery carts, chunks of plastic and random flotsam scattered along a four-mile stretch of beach on west Hayden Island, a half-mile across the Columbia River from downtown Vancouver.

Coyotes prowl beneath one of the last black cottonwood-ash stands along the river. They hunt rabbits near the sandy shore. Deer forage in the clearings.

Canada geese waddle across dunes created by dumped dredge spoils and slide into the murky water. River otters, beaver and turtles slither over the 4-foot-diameter sewage outfall pipe to the rivers edge. Songbirds flit about, and salmon, sturgeon and carp loll in the shallows.

It wont stay this way much longer. But there are colliding visions of west Haydens future.

The public knows the east end of the island, home to the Jantzen Beach shopping mall, hotels and condominiums. The fenced-off west end of the island is part of a 27,000-acre lively ecosystem, a flyway for birds that runs from Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge east of Washougal through Smith and Bybee Lakes across the Vancouver Lake lowlands to the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge.

Slowly, the Port of Portland owner of the property is bringing a sliver of the island back to a natural state, while also looking to build a marine cargo terminal. In the islands center, on the edge of a new, 2.4-acre, manmade swale, cattails, newly planted ash, dogwood and hawthorn sprout on the banks where blackberries have been cleared away. Turtles and fish are returning.

Port officials say they expect to meet all environmental restrictions and upgrade the natural flora and fauna as they undertake development, while neighbors and environmentalists vehemently oppose any industrial use of the island.

The Port of Portland sees west Hayden as critical ground. The mainline railroad, the deep-water Columbia River channel and Interstate 5 all are directly accessible. The port bought 185 acres of the west island property for $1.2 million in 1983 from forest- products company James River and the remainder in 1994, for $5.3 million, from utility Portland General.

We purchased the property for future marine-industrial development, said Susie Lahsene, the ports land use and transportation manager. So weve always intended to expand the marine activities to west Hayden Island at some future date.

This summer, when the port presents the Portland City Council with a plan for the future of the eastern end of the island, it will also ask the council to annex west Hayden Island and rezone it from farm-forestry (marine strategic reserve) to industrial.

At the same time, said Larry Devroy, the ports mitigation program manager, the port aims to continue to remove invasive blackberry bushes and restore wetlands and upland trees.

Strong objections

Not so fast with the development, say neighbors and environmentalists.

Our position is that it is a critical area and should be protected in its entirety, said Bob Sallinger, conservation director at the Portland Audubon Society. Cottonwoodash forest was once the dominant habitat type along the Lower Columbia, he said, but today west Hayden Island represents approximately 4 percent of all that historic forest that remains between Astoria, Ore. and Bonneville Dam.

Were making a last stand here, he said.

Instead of independently developing this area, the port should reach a cooperative agreement with the Port of Vancouver to build additional facilities if they come to be needed on Clark County land, he said.

But that kind of commercial linkage between the ports is unlikely, said Larry Paulson, executive director of the Vancouver port. The two ports arent designed to pool their resources, he said.

Its not that we wouldnt plan together, Paulson said. But to invest in each others mission would be difficult. He noted that Port of Vancouver voters rejected the Columbia Gateway expansion project last August. He said the port is attempting to respond to voters and expand slowly.

That is completely unacceptable, said Sallinger. The ports shouldnt be acting like Coke and Pepsi, competing over the land base. That serves no one well.

Sallinger said the ports need to change their operational models to work together to preserve rapidly diminishing natural areas, looking at the long view to see how best to use and protect lands throughout the area.

The best way to protect them, counters Devroy, is to develop a portion of the island for industry and use the income it generates to restore native plants and wildlife.

Establishing, and maintaining, an area for wildlife is an expensive, ongoing process that cant be handled financially without some development to provide funds, he said.

Lay of the land

Ragged wildlands begin at the rutted west end of Hayden Island Drive. They extend four miles past a steel gate covered with no- trespassing signs beneath the railroad bridge.

In 1998 and 1999, the port moved to develop west Hayden Island, but dropped the idea when environmentalists and neighbors objected and a client backed out of a proposal to build a grain terminal.

Since then, the port has been without a prospective customer. The port is moving forward now so it can make a full-blown assessment of the property to see what it can offer, officials said.

Its like a parcel in search of a tenant, said Sallinger. They say its critical and yet they cant tell you what they are going to do with it. It needs to serve a community need as an area that is protected for wildlife.

The port is open to creating a plan that includes natural resources and recreation as well, Lahsene said. But the future is in an exploratory stage. Were assessing the features of the property. It makes it very hard to do long-term planning if you dont know what youve got, she said. Do we have 500 acres that we can use for marine industrial development, or do we have some other number?

We dont have a customer now, added Greg Theisen, a port planner. What that means to us is that its really the linkages to other planning processes that are driving us. Plans for the Interstate 5 Bridge replacement and east Hayden Island development make this a reasonable time also to plan for west Hayden Island, he said.

We are not focused on some goal of serving some known use or known user in the short term, he added.

Limbo land

For 15 years, the west end of the island has been cordoned off from the public, reserved for dumping of dredge spoils and, until 18 months ago, for grazing 55 head of cattle. Three high-voltage power lines and a major sewer outfall cross the property.

But the Friends of West Hayden Island neighborhood group wants to keep at least 600 acres of the land as wildlife preserve. The friends want to turn the other 225 acres into a nature park like the Tualatin Hills Park & Recreation Centers park in Beaverton, Ore.

That 222-acre Tualatin urban greenspace is a mosaic of trails, ponds and gardens where people can commune with nature.

The neighbors suggest placing the property in a mitigation bank, cleaning it up and devoting it to wildlife and the public.

This is a high value wildlife asset not only for Portland, but for Vancouver as well, said Timme Helzer. co-chairman of the Friends of West Hayden Island. Its in the center of a 150-square-mile ecosystem.

Eighty-one species of birds nest there. Nine species of mammals live there, yearround, four species of reptiles, nine species of butterflies and moths, four species of salmon.

Most people dont know much about west Hayden Island. They think it ends at Jantzen Beach Supercenter mall. But there is an 825-acre refuge there that is locked closed, and is not accessible.

To build anything there, the port needs to conduct a lot of environmental impact studies, and undergo an examination of the economic needs that would be served by developing the area.

The more I get to mitigate, the better I like it, said the ports Devroy. He agreed that the island is home to all kinds of wildlife and has great potential as a natural area. What he fears is that financial mechanisms might not be placed to support maintenance of a wild area.

Yet neighbors are mistrustful and apprehensive.

I live in a floating home, just a short distance east of the railroad bridge, which is a very visual dividing line for the island, said Cheryl Lund, a fouryear resident. I have the opportunity to see, up close and personal, the wildlife around west Hayden Island. And it is absolutely phenomenal. I see river otters, beavers, osprey, eagles, muskrats, herons, many species of duck, diving birds, cormorants, raccoons, coyotes, deer, Ive seen them all. Salmon, carp, sturgeon, swimming at certain times of the year in my backyard.

Speaking for the neighbors, Helzer said, it doesnt make sense to turn it into a marine industrial complex that may or may not be a financial success.

As a citizen, I want them to make money, said Helzer. I would like to see them generate high-paying jobs and encourage trade. But given the amount of money it would take to develop west Hayden Island, I doubt seriously whether it would generate any net revenue when its all said and done. Why they want to go forward with this plan is just beyond me.

Development of a natural area would pay greater dividends in terms of ecotourism, he said.

But port officials said future traffic on sea, river, highway and rail is going to increase and may make this property a prime piece of the areas commercial future. The fact is, they said, that development can bring with it restoration of lands for wildlife and native plants.

But when, and if, that development will happen remains to be determined.

The debate

The future of west Hayden Island

On one side: The Port of Portland plans to seek city approval for annexation and a zone change on west Hayden Island by the end of 2009 so it can develop a portion of its 825-acre property, while conserving the rest as a nature preserve and public nature area. It says the area is large enough for multiple uses.

On another side: The 200-member Friends of West Hayden Island organization wants to preserve the entire area as a public nature park and wildlife area.

How to get involved: Friends of West Hayden Island, Timme Helzer, 503-285-2119, or Christine White, community affairs manager, Port of Portland, 503-944-7056.

(c) 2008 Columbian. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.