Image: Corey Arnold

The great blue heron is one of more than 100 species of birds that make a home on Ross Island.

Simplicity pulls up along the lagoon’s western bank, an 80-foot-wide splinter of the original Ross Island that was donated to the city by Pamplin in 2007. Portland Parks & Recreation now manages the parcel and has begun what promises to be a long effort to eradicate nonnative plants. “It’s not the Garden of Eden,” Dave McAllister, the bureau’s city nature manager, says. “It’s a snake pit of invasive species.”
Right now, the Parks property, like the rest of the island, allows limited access to the island. (With one exception: up to the normal, seasonal high-water line, the banks are legally part of “the waters of the state” and, therefore, public. Someone recently erected a statue of Sasquatch on the beach.) But as Houck and his allies dream about the future, they’re giving a lot of thought to how Portlanders will eventually use Ross Island—and they’re focusing on what is sure to be a controversial look-but-don’t-touch concept of “access.”

Up close, Ross Island is indeed an intriguing object example of ecological resilience.

“Maybe you don’t need to walk on the island,” Houck says as Simplicity bobs 20 feet from shore. “Maybe there doesn’t need to be a footbridge or trails.” Surveying the lagoon and seeing past its current state of creepy dilapidation, he fantasizes about barges anchored near the shoreline, equipped with bird blinds for a kind of industrial-scale, open-air natural history diorama. “People could come out in canoes or kayaks—you know, bring your picnic and … ” A huge adult bald eagle interrupts Houck, arcing over the boat and landing on a stark branch above us.

“See?” Houck says, picking up his train of thought with a wide smile. “Just that. Right there. Stuff like that never ceases to blow people’s minds.”

Up close, Ross is indeed an intriguing object example of ecological resilience: it’s home to a heron rookery and remains a way station for river otters, eagles, hawks, beavers, even coyotes. Bob Sallinger tells a story about standing at the river’s edge in the South Waterfront and, with his birder’s scope, seeing an antlered buck stride out of the woods on Ross’s northern end. Such things suggest that if human beings could sort out the many vested interests at play, these battered islands could indeed become something extraordinary: a hybrid habitat wherein nature serves the city and the city serves nature.

If Houck and his allies have their way, some version of this will come to pass. But when? The answer is not for the impatient. At the moment, Houck keeps a rough timetable of the next five years’ goals in his head, but he admits that a lot of its bullet points are aspirational. Next year, the Friends of Ross Island will put forth their final (and completely unofficial) plan for all four islands and the reach of the Willamette between the Sellwood and Ross Island bridges. (“Thus, we will do,” Houck says.) In three years, Ross Island Sand and Gravel’s operations permit demands the completion of a reclamation plan. But what next? Will the city and Pamplin’s company—so often at odds—find consensus on a plan for the islands’ future? And will that plan bear any resemblance to the Friends’ ambitious green-urbanist dreams? When will gravel-processing at that grimy factory cease? Will the public ever own all of Ross?

As Simplicity drifts beneath the eagle’s impassive gaze, Houck reflects, as is his wont, on the islands’ potential. “We could talk about what could happen at Ross in a 10-year time frame, and we should, but we could also talk about a 50-year timeline,” he says. “People might say, well, hell, 50 years is a long time. I, personally, have already been involved in Ross Island for 31 years. Fifty years is not a long time in the scheme of things.”