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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.