Tucked into a bend on tranquil N Willamette Drive, just south of the University of Portland, a single tree stands on a steep green embankment, its branches reaching out toward the railyards below. Nailed on its moss-covered trunk is a plate reading, “Portland Heritage Tree, Oregon White Oak.” But this is no shield against the creeping encroachment of developers and the nearby university—emboldened by relaxed city zoning codes.

Friends of Overlook Bluff is the collective name of the 15 volunteers who are stepping up to preserve the oak, and convince the city of Portland to acquire the land from its private owner. In a city with about 19 trees per acre, the quest to save a single tree may seem odd, but the lone oak extends its roots into one of the city’s last undeveloped, privately owned properties east of the Willamette River. Before 1850, oak savannas like Overlook Bluff formed a corridor and migratory pathway stretching from British Columbia to California. Today, only 20 percent of this original riparian land in Oregon’s Willamette River Basin remains forested. And that percentage is shrinking fast. In 2010, with the city’s blessing, UP bought up 55,000 square feet of previously protected land on the bluffs to build a parking lot.

“I think the focus at first is this one tree, this one acre,” says Friends founder and neighborhood resident Ruth Oclander, “but all of a sudden the significance is so far reaching.” 

Oclander, a descendant of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, the father of Boston’s greenbelt (and uncle to the author of Portland’s 1903 parks plan), believes that saving the tiny outcropping will be the first step to building a network of urban wilderness trails from the bluff to St. Johns. The single acre of untouched land is a stitch in the larger ecological fabric that supports deer, coyotes, red-tailed hawks, and great-horned owls. 

“We have to think that if we preserve this land,” Oclander says, “there will be something there one hundred years from now, and it won’t be just houses.”