Ross Island

Ross Island is an oasis of nature in the middle of our city. Located just one mile upstream of downtown Portland, it is home to nesting Bald Eagles and Great Blue Herons, and at least 50 species of birds use the island throughout the year.

During both spring and fall migration, many bird species stop over on the island to rest and refuel, and federally listed Chinook, Coho and Steelhead use its shallow water habitat as they move up and down the Willamette. On any given day, boaters may have the thrill of seeing beaver and otter swimming in the narrow Holgate Channel that lies between Ross Island and nearby Oaks Bottom Natural Area.

An aerial photo of Ross Island.
Ross Island Aerial, photo by Mike Houck

In 1903, visionary landscape architect John Charles Olmstead recommended to the Portland Parks Board that the four-island Ross Island archipelago (Ross, Hardtack, East, and Toe Islands) be set aside as a city park. The realization of this vision was postponed for over a century. In 1926, Ross Island Sand and Gravel Company purchased the islands and began excavating and processing raw aggregate. A large lagoon was carved into the side of Ross Island as excavation operations continued for nearly 80 years. Mining operations ceased in the Ross Island Lagoon in 2004, but the Ross Island Sand and Gravel Company today retains ownership over the majority of the four island complex and continues to process sand and gravel from other sites in the Columbia River at a plant located on Ross Island.

In 2007, Bird Alliance of Oregon, Willamette Riverkeeper, and the Urban Greenspaces Institute worked with Dr. Robert Pamplin, owner of Ross Island Sand and Gravel Company, on a landmark deal to donate 45 acres on Ross Island to the City of Portland. Part of the deal also included $100,000 for habitat restoration. Portland Parks and Recreation now manages this land, and habitat restoration activities are improving the quality of habitat for its wildlife.

On the remaining 350 acres still owned by Ross Island Sand and Gravel Company, a long-term Reclamation Plan is in place that binds the company to restore large portions of the excavated lagoon as well as upland habitats. Much of the current barge activity in the Ross Island Lagoon actually involves restoration activities – the lagoon, more than 120 feet deep from decades of mining, is slowly being filled along its edges to provide shallow water and riparian habitat for fish and wildlife. 

A significant portion of Ross Island is now officially part of the Portland Parks system, helping to bring John Charles Olmsted’s original vision to life. We continue to work for the island’s future as a protected and restored natural area.