Gorge islands a rare setting for renaissance

Growth of plant that's almost vanished from state encourages stewards

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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photoPierce Island and Ives Island. Click to enlarge.
photoPierce Island, in the Columbia River near Beacon Rock, is part of a unique ecosystem that has raised renewed interest among environmental stewardship groups recently. The Vancouver-based Columbia Land Trust acquired the island this summer. At top, Columbia Land Trust stewardship lead Dan Friesz holds a map of Pierce Island.

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photoColumbia Land Trust stewardship director Ian Sinks steadies a boat as stewardship lead Dan Friesz jumps to shore at Pierce Island this week. The island, accessible only by water, is the focus of renewed conservation efforts by the land trust and other groups.

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photoThe persistent-sepal yellowcress is known to grow in only two places in the state: the Hanford Reach in South-central Washington, and a five-acre area on and around Pierce Island in the Columbia River Gorge. The Columbia Land Trust is in the process documenting the plant's locations on Pierce Island as part of its conservation and restoration efforts there.

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photoPierce Island, located near Beacon Rock on the Columbia River, is home to a range of wildlife, including black-tailed deer, seen here.

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photoColumbia Land Trust stewardship lead Dan Friesz walks through a section of recently planted tree cuttings on Pierce Island this week. The Vancouver-based nonprofit has also removed invasive plants as it takes on restoration work on the island this year.

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PIERCE ISLAND -- At first glance, it's easy to miss.

The seemingly innocuous plant doesn't look like much. It's only a few inches across, its tiny leaves staying close to the ground.

And its name -- persistent-sepal yellowcress -- doesn't exactly inspire a wave of excitement for the average person.

"As far as plants go, it's not the showiest," said Ian Sinks, stewardship director with the Columbia Land Trust. "Botanists get excited."

So do Sinks and his colleague Dan Friesz. That's because they know they're looking at something that's found almost nowhere else in the state. As the two walked the northern edge of Pierce Island, in the Columbia River just below Beacon Rock, they took note of the state-endangered plant. It's one of many characteristics that have drawn renewed attention to the unique ecosystem supported by Pierce Island, nearby Ives Island and the surrounding area as environmental stewardship groups continue their efforts there.

The Columbia Land Trust acquired Pierce Island from The Nature Conservancy this summer. The land trust, based in Vancouver, began new work on the island in February in anticipation of that transfer. The Lower Columbia Fish Enhancement Group has led in-water habitat restoration projects with partners in the surrounding area for years. The setting provides prime spawning ground for threatened chum salmon and other fish, said LCFEG Executive Director Tony Meyer.

That, and other attributes, are an increasingly rare find in the lower Columbia River, Sinks said.

"These islands are a valuable resource, and kind of a finite resource," he said.

Diverse setting

Pierce and Ives islands aren't connected to any path or road. Getting there means getting in a boat. But sitting just a short distance from a boat ramp at Beacon Rock State Park, the islands do see some -- though not much -- recreational use.

Pierce Island was owned by The Nature Conservancy for almost three decades. Ives Island is federally owned, managed under the same umbrella as the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. Both sit near the Pierce National Wildlife Refuge. All of that is just downstream from Bonneville Dam. It's a patchwork of ownership and political interests that has made environmental work a challenge in the past, advocates say.

On Pierce Island, the land trust has planted native trees and removed invasive plants over an approximately 80-acre footprint. Much of that work happened this spring, but there's more to come. The invasive plants, mostly desert false indigo, are coming back. The work so far has been funded by a $78,000 grant from the nonprofit Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership.

The land trust continues to actively survey the 136-acre island. That includes making careful note of the rare persistent-sepal yellowcress.

"It's really important for us to get it mapped really well and just kind of see how it's doing," said Friesz, a stewardship lead with the land trust.

So far, the land trust has identified more than 1,000 of the plants on Pierce Island. It may also exist on Ives Island. But that doesn't mean it's thriving -- Friesz estimated it may be growing only within five acres on the lower Columbia. The only other place it's known to grow in the state is the Hanford Reach in South-central Washington, Sinks said.

"It's a plant that's pretty much disappeared from its normal range," Friesz said. "And now it's holding on here."

The plant has emerged and bloomed more prominently in recent weeks as the Columbia's water level remains low. It tends to grow near the island's edges. And its existence here isn't just a neat happenstance, Sinks said. It's an important indicator of a still-healthy ecosystem that's worth holding onto, he said.

"It's part of the biodiversity," Sinks said. "It's part of the web of ecology. … What it represents is this habitat."

Other restoration efforts on the island have shown mixed success so far. Friesz walked through a series of tree cuttings planted in the ground this year. Some showed promising growth, reaching toward the sky with new leaves and branches. Others showed few signs of life. Still others made some gains, only to be munched by the elk that inhabit the islands.

That's to be expected in places, Friesz said, and something the land trust will have to take into account in its efforts to allow new trees to take hold.

"The elk are going to come in, and it's like a buffet for them," Friesz said.

Focus on fish

Meyer, of the fish enhancement group, has focused his attention on the waterways around Pierce and Ives islands. Much of his group's work has taken place on and around Hamilton Creek, which empties into the Columbia near the islands.

Past projects have created new habitat and established new channels for fish, Meyer said. There's also great value in the gravel beds for spawning around the islands themselves, he said. The goal is to boost ailing fish populations that have suffered over decades as the river evolves in the shadow of Bonneville Dam.

Meyer said he still sees a "huge opportunity" for continued progress in the area. Friesz sees the same for Pierce Island itself, despite logistical hurdles and other obstacles the setting presents.

"Having the opportunity to work on a property like this in the main stem of the Columbia … it's a lot more challenging, but it brings a lot more stewardship opportunities," Friesz said.


Eric Florip: 360-735-4541; http://twitter.com/col_enviro; eric.florip@columbian.com.