Most Portlanders probably don’t know much about the steep natural bluffs that run for 7 miles along the Willamette River’s east bank, from Pier Park to the Fremont Bridge.
It’s easy to overlook the bluffs, even though they’re a prominent feature of Portland. They sit there hidden in plain sight, like a big red nose.
Officially, the bluffs’ name is the Willamette Escarpment. But many folks simply call them the Overlook Bluffs. Another stretch of bluffs to the south extends from Oaks Bottom, past the Sellwood Bridge and all the way to Elk Rock Island in Milwaukie.
The Overlook Bluffs are home to all kinds of urban wildlife like squirrels and raccoons — and some not-so-urban animals like deer. They serve as a migration corridor for birds and other animals seeking food on the Willamette River floodplain. As long as they are left alone by developers, the bluffs will continue to make it possible for animals to travel through the area without ending up as road kill.
The bluffs’ natural habitats are dominated by Oregon white oak, Pacific madrone and native grasses.
The Overlook Bluffs pass next to the University of Portland, Swan Island and the Union Pacific Rail yard. As I write this, they are all I see when I look out my back window.
Beyond fulfilling my own personal need for inspiration, the Overlook Bluffs have a lot to offer the entire city. We all own the bluffs, and it’s important that we give them some serious attention before they are developed and lost forever.
The bluffs are zoned as a conservation area, and thus cannot be developed for homes unless certain restrictions are met. But zoning restrictions do little to enhance the habitat or to educate the public of its value, and are never permanent. They can easily be ignored if a developer has a lot of money and influence, and city officials are in the mood to, ahem, listen.
This kind of loss is not merely theoretical. In 2010, the city of Portland gave the University of Portland permission to tear out 55,000 square feet of natural area on the bluffs to build a parking lot, in an apparent violation of at least the spirit of the zoning code.
Urban lifestyles in the nearby neighborhoods pose many kinds of threats. They attract disease-ridden vermin, are associated with litter and garbage, and allow unleashed pets to wander without supervision.
Sewer rats have been seen emerging from drains near the bluffs. The rats snatch food placed there by well-intentioned neighbors who have the misguided notion that it’s a good idea to feed the cute squirrels. Do we really need “Please don’t feed the squirrels” signs? Apparently.
Worst of all, the area could go up in smoke as a result of wildfires caused by careless homeowners who fail to clear out dead and dying weeds and brush on their land. Highly flammable vines and shrubs act as ladders, helping a fire to quickly spread to the tree canopy. Once in the canopy, the fire can easily become catastrophic.
One of the worst urban wildfires in Portland history occurred on the bluffs near the University of Portland in 2001. That fire, lit by sparks from a passing train, was fueled by a buildup of Himalayan blackberry bushes and other weeds. A child playing with matches lit another wildfire near the college in 2011. Though no buildings were damaged, both wildfires reached the fence lines of several backyards.
It may be too late to save the entire natural area around the university, but a group of residents who live near the southern end of the bluffs are taking action to ensure their section of the bluffs is preserved in a natural state.
Calling themselves Friends of the Overlook Bluff, these neighbors understand the area is not the east-side equivalent of Forest Park but nonetheless insist that it has unmet potential for bird-watching and hiking.
The group has been meeting recently to discuss its long-term goal of seeing construction of a hiking trail that spans the length of the bluff. Educational signage could inform people of the bluff’s history and natural character. The group’s goals have been endorsed by the Overlook Neighborhood Association.
Friends of the Overlook Bluff’s most immediate priority is to expand the protected area. They have asked the city or Metro to purchase two vacant lots on Overlook Terrace near the bluffs’ south end, which is home to a giant Oregon white oak tree and a large meadow where a doe and her two fawns are often seen browsing, oblivious to the fact that houses and a street are located no more than a few feet away. The lot is within sight of downtown and the Fremont Bridge.
Even in this bad economy, funding for property purchases that enhance nature is available. Metro’s Nature in the Neighborhoods program provides grant money for projects that protect and enhance natural areas.
The North Portland enhancement grant program, established in 1985 by an act of the Oregon Legislature, created a mitigation fund to compensate the community affected by the now-closed St. Johns landfill. Funds were generated from a 50-cent surcharge imposed on each ton of garbage disposed of at the dump. Today, interest generated on the fund supports the grant program. Projects must directly benefit residents or neighborhoods around the landfill, including Arbor Lodge, Cathedral Park, Kenton, Overlook, Portsmouth, St. Johns and University Park.
In 2009, Metro and the city found almost $2 million to buy 6 acres at the northern end of the bluffs, in a place called the Baltimore Woods.
Friends of the Overlook Bluff’s second priority is to restore the cliffside environment. They plan to address alien plants, such as clematis, Scot’s broom, and Himalayan blackberry that have taken root throughout the area, and replace them with native varieties.
There are a lot of natural areas in Portland that need protection, but neighbors of the bluffs hope their priorities aren’t overlooked.