As time goes by, we get busier. Escap­ing for a week­end or a week in the wilder­ness becomes hard­er and hard­er. So, more of our out­door adven­tures hap­pen close to home. And “home” means cities, because that’s where 80 per­cent of Amer­i­cans live—and that per­cent­age is steadi­ly climb­ing. In line with this demo­graph­ic shift, con­ser­va­tion has shift­ed its focus from vast tracts of wilder­ness to the places down the street that are inte­grat­ed into our dai­ly lives.

Port­land has led this charge. Depend­ing on who you ask, it began in either 1903 with an ambi­tious plan for Portland’s parks, to the cre­ation of For­est Park after World War II, or the first for­mal mas­ter plan for urban nat­ur­al areas in 1992. But what­ev­er the ori­gins, these islands of nature in Portland’s urban land­scape have become a fun­da­men­tal part of life in the Rose City.

Oaks Bot­tom Wildlife Refuge
When the City of Port­land des­ig­nat­ed Oaks Bot­tom as a “Wildlife Refuge” rather than a park, it was ground­break­ing. That sub­tle choice of words meant that it was man­aged for wildlife as much as peo­ple, a step that built momen­tum for plan­ners and envi­ron­men­tal advo­cates. The Bot­tom got that des­ig­na­tion through a com­bi­na­tion vision­ary park advo­cates and guer­ril­la action. When one pro­pos­al threat­ened to turn the wet­land into sports fields, some envi­ron­men­tal advo­cates “bor­rowed” yel­low signs that said “Wildlife Refuge,” descend­ed into the wet­land at night with a lad­der, a ham­mer, and a bot­tle of Jim Beam, and post­ed them. News­pa­pers began call­ing it “Oaks Bot­tom Wildlife Refuge” and the City Coun­cil fol­lowed suit in 1988.

Today, Oaks Bot­tom is an eco­log­i­cal linch­pin that con­nects habi­tat in the Willamette Riv­er, Ross Island, and river­side for­est in Pow­ers Marine Park. It’s also a vital com­mut­ing link—for Great Blue Herons between nests and feed­ing grounds, and for work­ers cycling down­town on the OMSI to Spring­wa­ter bike path. With Portland’s sky­line in the dis­tance, Oaks Bot­tom is the poster child for what’s pos­si­ble for urban wildlife.

Don­na S.


Ross Island
Lit­er­al­ly a forest­ed island in the midst of down­town, Ross Island is a hol­lowed-out cen­ter lagoon dug out by Ross Island Sand and Grav­el until about 1999. No humans live here, but Great Blue Herons, bald eagles, red-tailed hawks, and ospreys have all have set up nests on the island, and fly­overs from Pere­grine Fal­cons that nest under Portland’s bridges are com­mon. In the morn­ing and evening, the waters near Ross Island are dense with human-pow­ered boats: row­ing shells, out­rig­ger canoes, kayaks, drag­onboats, and stand up pad­dle­boards use the 4‑mile cir­cuit for train­ing, while tak­ing advan­tage of a no-wake zone in the Hol­gate Chan­nel. Port­land Parks and Recre­ation have bought small por­tions of the island from Ross Island Sand and Grav­el, but nego­ti­a­tions to buy the rest of the island for the pub­lic have stalled.
Bill Reynolds

Smith and Bybee Lakes, North Port­land
“I nev­er knew this place exist­ed” is a fre­quent state­ment at Smith and Bybee Lakes. A close sec­ond is “I can’t believe I’m still in Port­land!” Smith and Bybee Lakes, the largest urban fresh­wa­ter wet­land in the nation, is a 2,000 acre series of lakes and veg­e­tat­ed chan­nels near the con­flu­ence of the Willamette and Colum­bia Rivers. It’s over­looked because it’s hid­den in the River­gate Indus­tri­al Dis­trict, and because it’s a watery world best explored by canoe and kayak. But when you’re afloat, it can be like pad­dling through a Nation­al Geo­graph­ic spe­cial. The Lakes have views of Mount Hood, bare­ly a build­ing is to be seen, and the inhab­i­tants include a mas­sive Heron and Egret rook­ery, Osprey and Bald Eagle nests, riv­er otters, beaver, win­ter­ing water­fowl, migrat­ing song­birds and numer­ous West­ern Paint­ed Tur­tles. The lake’s maze-like chan­nels change with both the tide and the sea­sons. Pad­dle trips can link the lakes with the near­by Willamette, the Colum­bia Slough, and the Colum­bia River.
Gabriel Amadeus


Pow­ell Butte Nature Park
Port­land is the only major city in Amer­i­ca with vol­ca­noes with­in its city lim­its—Pow­ell Butte is one of them. Have no fear—it’s extinct. Pow­ell Butte’s bald, grassy sum­mit pro­vides stun­ning view of Mount Hood, Adams, and Jef­fer­son on clear days, and the open habi­tat is a good place to see species not often seen in dense­ly forest­ed Port­land like north­ern Har­ri­ers, Shrikes, and coy­otes. The Butte is per­fect for urban hikes and is con­nect­ed to the Spring­wa­ter Bike Trail. Fun fact: a buried 50-mil­lion gal­lon reser­voir beneath the Butte sup­plies rough­ly 35% of Portland’s dai­ly water.

For­est Park
The Great Grand­dad­dy of the City’s Nat­ur­al Areas, For­est Park was the cen­ter­piece of Olm­stead Broth­ers’ plan to inte­grate nature into Portland’s parks in 1903. For­est Park takes up a mas­sive swath of North­west Port­land, and extends from the Tualatin Moun­tains into the heart of North­west Port­land, and includes over 5,000 acres and over 70 miles of trails. It’s even larg­er seen in a land­scape per­spec­tive, because it’s con­nect­ed to the Hoyt Arbore­tum, Audubon Sanc­tu­ary, and Wash­ing­ton Park. Its size and con­nec­tions to the coast range make it home to wildlife that are rare in urban parks. A biol­o­gist once placed remote cam­eras in the park—when he retrieved them, he found a pho­to of a bear’s nose smushed against the lens. Elk, bob­cat, and cougar also live in the park, peace­ful­ly coex­ist­ing with hik­ers and cyclists.

EncM­str, Wild­wood Trail (cropped),,_Oregon)


The Colum­bia Slough
If For­est Park is the Great Grand­dad­dy, the Colum­bia Slough, is the red-head­ed stepchild with enor­mous poten­tial. An urban water­way run­ning through Fairview and North and North­east Port­land, the Slough con­nects Fairview Lake, Smith and Bybee Lakes, and the Willamette Riv­er. Home to a long and trou­bled indus­tri­al his­to­ry, it’s now being redis­cov­ered with new canoe launch­es, hid­den wildlife gems like Big Four Cor­ners and Whit­tak­er Ponds, and a grow­ing res­i­den­tial pop­u­la­tion eager to dis­cov­er nature close to home. The Colum­bia Slough Water­shed Coun­cil orga­nizes the Small Craft Regat­ta on the slough every year, one of the largest human-pow­ered boat events in the region.
A.F. Litt (cropped)


West Hay­den Island
The west­ern half of Hay­den Island is the largest remain­ing unpro­tect­ed chunk of nat­ur­al habi­tat in Port­land and vital habi­tat for salmon, amphib­ians, birds, and bats. Locat­ed at the junc­tion of the Colum­bia and Willamette rivers, it’s been the sub­ject of peri­od­ic bat­tles between nature lovers and port offi­cials, who have sought to devel­op an indus­tri­al ter­mi­nal for con­tain­er ships. Nature lovers have held devel­op­ment plans at bay since the late 1990s, but West Hay­den Island still lacks per­ma­nent protection.

Your Yard
Wildlife doesn’t care who owns property—only where they can find food and water and build nests. Indi­vid­ual res­i­dents, not Parks depart­ments, own most of the land in Port­land. And crit­ters need cor­ri­dors of habi­tat to move from one pro­tect­ed area to anoth­er. A cam­paign is now afoot to make indi­vid­ual yards, as well as big nature parks, friend­ly for wildlife by plant­i­ng native plants that pro­vide food, back­yard ponds, reduc­ing the use of chem­i­cals on lawns and gar­dens, and keep­ing cats indoors. Port­land Audubon Soci­ety pro­vides the know-how and incen­tives to make yards wildlife friendly.