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Parks and Reclamation: Government agencies balance priorities on western Umatilla River

Steelhead, Riverfront, Oxbow and other properties along the Umatilla River combine habitat restoration and public recreation.
Jade McDowell

East Oregonian

Published on October 6, 2017 12:01AM

Last changed on October 6, 2017 11:45PM

A group of walkers us the trail during a Walk Hermiston event on Wednesday at Riverfront Park in Hermiston.

Staff photo by E.J. Harris

A group of walkers us the trail during a Walk Hermiston event on Wednesday at Riverfront Park in Hermiston.

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An old rope swing hangs from a tree over the Umatilla River at Steelhead Park outside of Hermiston.

Staff photo by E.J. Harris

An old rope swing hangs from a tree over the Umatilla River at Steelhead Park outside of Hermiston.

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Pine trees grow in a stand on the Oxbow site west of Hermiston. The trees were part of a planting of 7000 trees meant to help rehabilitated the property.

Staff photo by E.J. Harris

Pine trees grow in a stand on the Oxbow site west of Hermiston. The trees were part of a planting of 7000 trees meant to help rehabilitated the property.

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As the Umatilla River winds its way from the Blue Mountains to the Columbia River, the caretakers of its banks are working to strike a balance between restoration and recreation.

Near Hermiston, a 220-acre former ranch known as the Oxbow site was purchased by the Bureau of Reclamation with habitat restoration in mind. Three years ago volunteers planted 7,000 trees on the land to restore the natural floodplain and establish more wildlife habitat. About 56 percent of those trees have survived.

“We’ll see how they continue to do out here, but I think it was a pretty successful planting,” Bureau of Reclamation natural resources specialist Chet Sater said.

After problems ranging from a hungry beaver to a particularly hot summer, Sater said the bureau expected more like 50 percent to survive. Some species did not fare so well, but hundreds of ponderosa pines and cottonwoods are still standing. As the trees continue to grow they will provide cooling shade, attract wildlife and send clearer water back into the river.

Not all trees are good news. Sater said the biggest thing the property needs is removal of the invasive Russian olive trees and other non-native vegetation, something he said would be a “massive undertaking.”

“About every other plant out here is some kind of invasive species,” he said.

Invasive species like Russian olives proliferate quickly, choking out other plant life that is more suited to the ecosystem. Full removal and replacement with native species could run into the millions of dollars, but every little bit can help. Sater said the volunteer group Tour of Knowledge has been dedicated about removing invasive garlic mustard — not to mention old barbed wire fences and litter — from the site on a regular basis. The bureau welcomes help from any group willing to take on a service project on the Oxbow site.

“There has been a lot of behind-the-scenes work that didn’t get much recognition,” he said.

There have been other people who have been detrimental to the area, however. Illegal homeless camps along the river disrupt habitats, and this summer a group of children allegedly sparked a fire that burned near the Oxbow Trail, which allows some recreational use through a piece of the Oxbow site.

Beyond planting trees and fighting weeds, the bureau would like to create a wetland enhancement area on Umatilla River’s former path, where water still rushes during a flood. The bureau has mostly left the river itself alone, other than an in-stream lease that keeps some of the bureau’s water right in the river.

Next door to the Oxbow site is Riverfront Park, where manicured lawns and asphalt trails place the emphasis on recreation. Tai Ly, who was making his way slowly around the trail on Tuesday while using the exercise stations, said he spends about an hour and a half at the park multiple times per week. He enjoys the health benefits provided by the park.

“I just found out about it three years ago,” he said. “Before that I just go to work and come home.”

On the south side of Riverfront Park lies a stretch of riverbank known as Steelhead Park, which the city of Hermiston recently acquired from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. Parks and recreation director Larry Fetter said it was a “big victory for Hermiston” to open up another half mile of land along the Umatilla River to public access.

“We live in an arid, dry area and so people want to enjoy what access to water they can,” Fetter said.

Unlike Riverfront Park, Fetter said development of Steelhead Park will be more passive, leaving most of the property untamed for activities like fishing and nature walks. There will be some parking, and one of the conditions of ODFW relinquishing the land to the city was that the city would create an access point for people to bring inner-tubes, kayaks, paddleboards and other recreational equipment into the river.

Fetter said the city will create a companion access ramp near the Recycled Water Treatment Plant roughly three miles downstream for people floating down the river to exit again on public property.

One of the city’s primary reasons for taking over ownership of the five-acre stretch of riverbank was to build the planned Highland Extension trail through the edge of the park that sits under the Bridge Road bridge. The pedestrian trail will run parallel to Highland Avenue. Looping the trail under the bridge will allow users to connect with the Riverfront Park and Oxbow trail systems without crossing the road.

Fetter said having the trail through there should help deter illicit activity, including homeless camps and graffiti. The city will remove some vegetation on that edge of the property to make it more visible to the road, increasing safety for park users. But Fetter said beyond replacing some of the invasive plant species with native ones, much of the vegetation at Steelhead Park will remain in order to preserve habitat for wildlife and shade the river.

Several miles downstream, the city of Umatilla is working on a parks master plan that includes projects along the river. Community development director Tamra Mabbott said the city would like to add more trails to the one that runs behind the high school as well as “informal footpaths.” The city also plans to use a $5,000 grant from Umatilla County Public Health to remove some Russian olive trees.

“Through town is some of the most popular fishing areas, and this will open up more access along there,” Mabbott said.

Since Russian olive trees do help shade the river and foster fish habitat, Mabbott said any work to tear up vegetation along the river would be done in consultation with the tribes and ODFW to make sure the project isn’t doing more harm than good.

Elected officials over the years, including city manager Russ Pelleberg and county commissioner Larry Givens, have had a dream of connecting Echo, Stanfield, Hermiston and Umatilla with one long trail along the Umatilla River. Mabbott said that dream is still a long ways off, and faces a lot of potential roadblocks, particularly along River Road.

“I don’t think physically a trail could fit between the roadway and river in some places,” she said.

She said she welcomes comments from the public, however, on how a potential trail might look.


Contact Jade McDowell at jmcdowell@eastoregonian.com or 541-564-4536.


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