Saturday, May 15, 2021
May 15, 2021

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What’s Up with That? Government Island gets human visitors, but no cows

By , Columbian Arts & Features Reporter

As many times as we all cross the I-205 Bridge and Government Island, I’m sure that some of us take the time to wonder. Are the cows still there? I don’t see or hear them anymore and I don’t see the barge that used to be tied on the Marine Drive side that was used for transporting the cows. I do know it is an Oregon park. What are the rules for camping over there? What is the history of the island? And what are they building on the north side of the main island?

—Joanne Manning, Cascade Southeast neighborhood

The grazing cows have gone away, Joanne, and the barge with them. But Government Island still hosts as many as 7,500 visitors per year, according to Oregon Parks and Recreation ranger John Cowan.

It’s an impressive number when you consider that all of them arrived by boat. There’s an officials-only access from the Interstate 205 bridge, but if you’re a tourist, you must get to Government Island from the water.

There are two docks on the north side, one built last year and another just completed — that’s the construction work you saw.

You can picnic and camp on the perimeter of the island year-round. There’s no fee. With 15 miles of shoreline, the place is popular with fishermen.

The interior, Cowan said, is a mitigation and natural restoration site and for the time being it’s off-limits to visitors. Many threatened species live on the island, from bald eagles to buffleheads.

That interior includes an old barn and miscellaneous buildings that belonged to a family named Hood, Cowan said, at around the turn of the 20th century — when Government Island was private land and a handful of families lived there. Before that, the island was used by farmers, fur traders and native people to graze animals, hunt and fish. It was called Goose Grass Island for a while.

The Port of Portland bought the island in 1969 because it thought it might expand Portland International Airport there. That plan has been abandoned, but the port — with busy flight paths directly overhead — still owns nearly all of what’s referred to as the Government Island Complex — that’s Government Island, the huge one in the middle traversed by I-205, plus Lemon Island immediately to the west and McGuire Island, a stone’s throw to the southeast. The latter two are very small.

According to the port’s 2002 management plan, the whole complex is 2,200 acres in size. Government Island itself is 1,760 acres. The port recently sold 224 acres to Metro, the regional government agency, and leased the remainder to Oregon Parks and Recreation.

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