West Hayden Island—The Time Is Now!

by Bob Sallinger, Conservation Director

For decades, the 826 acres of wildlife habitat on West Hayden Island has been one of the most conflicted and contested parcels in the Portland metropolitan region. However, the stars have begun to align, and an unprecedented opportunity now lies before us to permanently protect one of the largest and most ecologically valuable unprotected natural areas in the region.

An overhead view of West Hayden Island
West Hayden Island, photo courtesy of Port of Portland

Sitting just east of the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia Rivers, West Hayden Island includes critically important shallow water and off-channel habitat for endangered salmon and steelhead using both the Willamette and Columbia River systems. It contains one of the largest intact stands of cottonwood and ash forest left on the Lower Columbia, representing a remarkable 4% of this habitat left between river miles 12 and 145. Its complex mosaic of bottomland forest, wetlands, and meadows provide habitat for more than 120 bird species including several species of concern. Virtually the entire parcel lies within the floodplain and was submerged during the 1996 floods. When fully protected, West Hayden Island will be one of the largest additions to the regional system of natural areas in decades and will be the third largest natural area in the City of Portland, behind only Forest Park and Smith and Bybee Lakes in size.

Over the past four decades, some of Portland’s most epic conservation battles have been fought over this parcel. Bird Alliance of Oregon first began advocating for its protection in the 1980s when it was still owned by Portland General Electric. Articles expressing concern first began appearing in the Warbler in 1982, and a December 1993 article noted that PGE was proposing to add 20 million cubic yards of fill to the island to raise it above 100-year flood levels and prepare it for development. In a historically amusing understatement, Mike Houck, Bird Alliance of Oregon Urban Naturalist from 1980 to 2019, wrote, “The potential total destruction of this riparian and ash forest is an issue that Bird Alliance of Oregoners ought to be involved in.” Three and a half decades of conflict ensued.

In 1994, the Port of Portland acquired West Hayden Island from PGE with the intent of developing large marine terminals. Throughout the 1990s, 2000s, and early 2010s, Bird Alliance of Oregon and the Port would engage in multiple battles over the island. Over time, Bird Alliance of Oregon was joined by multiple conservation and environmental justice groups, the Hayden Island Neighborhood Association (HINooN) and other neighborhoods, and most notably by the nearby Hayden Island Manufactured Home Community and the Yakama Nation. Hearings circa 2014 were so well attended that they had to be moved out of City Hall and held in the auditorium of the Portland Building with overflow rooms.

Over time, understanding of the ecological value of West Hayden Island only increased while the demand for port terminals decreased. Near the end of 2019, the Port first let Bird Alliance of Oregon know that it no longer intended to develop West Hayden Island for marine terminals, and in February 2021, Port of Portland Executive Director Curtis Robinhold announced it to the entire community in a Sunday Oregonian article, stating that “an industrial development on that site is unlikely” and noting that “several stakeholders have expressed an interest in making it green space, including Bob Sallinger and the Bird Alliance of Oregon Society. I think they make strong arguments.” We greatly appreciate Robinhold’s leadership on this issue and the Port’s evolving and innovative thinking around marine terminal land demand, natural resource protection, and shared prosperity.

Bald Eagle, photo by Mick Thompson

After decades of disagreement, the Port and Bird Alliance of Oregon have been working collaboratively to advance a permanent protection strategy for the acreage owned by the Port on West Hayden Island. In order to accomplish this goal, fair market value will need to be raised to compensate the Port. One of the most viable pathways forward is funding from the 2019 $475 million Metro Greenspace Bond Measure. The parcel meets Metro’s commitment to advance environmental protection, access, and equity. Additional funding sources may be needed as well, and we will be advocating for support from the state, federal delegation, and others. Long-term ownership and management strategies will also need to be developed with strong community input. The parcel will still need to accommodate other existing functions, including transmission line corridors, a City of Portland water treatment outfall, and a Port dredge material disposal area.

However, four decades after the battle over West Hayden Island began, a collaborative resolution is now within reach. West Hayden Island could quickly become one of the region’s most unique and spectacular natural areas. Its permanent protection is among our top priorities and we look forward to continuing to work with the Port and other community stakeholders to make this a reality.