MONROE, Ore. — Norwood Island is an in-between sort of place.
It sits at the confluence of the Long Tom and Willamette rivers about midway between Harrisburg and Peoria, a few miles northeast of Monroe in the southern Willamette Valley.
The bridge that once provided road access washed out a few years back, leaving it cut off from the mainland and floating untethered in the channel that separates Linn and Benton counties.
After being farmed for many years, Norwood’s 90 acres were enrolled in a federal conservation program. Crops were phased out and native trees planted. Today the island is covered in a riotous mix of native plants and invasive species, with willows and Oregon white pines jostling for space with blackberry and scotch broom, teasel and canary grass.
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Now Norwood Island is in the middle of yet another sort of transition.
Owner Randy Crowson, a onetime farmer who now heads the Monroe School District, has agreed to sell the property to Willamette Riverkeeper for $75,000. The Portland-based nonprofit plans to clear out the remaining invasives, do more native plantings and open the island for public use as a float-in campground on the Willamette Water Trail.
“It’s a pretty unique piece of property when you get to looking at it,” Crowson said, with a prime location on the river and good fish and wildlife habitat.
“I always thought that piece of property belonged in something other than agriculture,” he added.
“I just always thought it was the right thing to do to get it to somebody that would be in a position to take care of it.”
The land purchase will be a first for Riverkeeper, a conservation group that has generally focused on safeguarding water quality, restoring degraded reaches of the river and promoting recreational use of the Willamette.
But the opportunity to acquire the island was just too good to pass up.
“It’s not the kind of thing we normally do,” admitted Travis Williams, the organization’s executive director.
“But it fits in with our water trail work, it’s in a part of the river we like, and there’s the conservation piece.”
Once the land transaction is complete, Williams said, he’ll start working on a formal management plan for the property. After an environmental assessment is done, Riverkeeper will probably use a mix of professional contractors and volunteer work parties to restore native plants on the island.
The plans also involve carving out a few simple campsites for paddlers, anglers and other river users, possibly two along the Willamette mainstem and two on the backchannel.
“It really depends on where the bank is gradual enough, where it makes sense to pull a boat up the bank,” Williams said. “We’ll keep it rustic, maybe a fire ring or two.”
New stop for water trail
After the property changes hands, Norwood Island will be added to the Willamette River Water Trail, a recreational paddling route that was created by Riverkeeper and the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department in 2004 and officially recognized by the U.S. Interior Department in 2012.
The trail highlights publicly accessible lands along the Willamette’s 187-mile course, where boaters can get on and off the water, stop for lunch or even spend the night, often at no cost. The mix includes about 90 parcels operated by Oregon Parks & Rec, some islands and other properties belonging to the Department of State Lands, and an assortment of city and county parks.
Norwood Island would add to a small cluster of established riverside campsites in the area. It’s a little ways downstream of Harkens Lake Landing and Irish Bend Park, and just above Sam Daws Landing and Buckskin Mary Landing.
“We’re excited — we hope (Riverkeeper) can pull it off,” said Dennis Wiley, the Willamette district manager for the state parks department.
“It means more opportunities for people to be able to use the river and be able to get off and know they’re not on private property.”
Like other stops along the Willamette Water Trail, Norwood would get some signs to distinguish it from land that’s off-limits to the public. Details about the campsites and takeout points would be added to the water trail’s website, which paddlers use to plan their trips, along with information about changing river conditions, navigation hazards and so on.
Back to the wild
A fundraising campaign has brought in about $60,000 in donations to date, said Kate Ross, Riverkeeper’s outreach coordinator. Now the organization is launching a final push to gather the remaining $15,000 needed to complete the purchase.
“We’re 74 percent of the way there, which is huge,” Ross said.
“But it doesn’t mean a thing if we can’t close the gap.”
Donations can be made online at the Willamette Water Trail website, willamettewatertrail.org.
But even now, before the land transaction is complete or any major restoration work has begun, Norwood Island is well on its way back to the wild.
The narrow, crescent-shaped land mass hugs the west bank of the Willamette on the inside edge of a sweeping bend in the river. Willows fringe the shoreline, which juts about 10 feet above the water this time of year.
The low-lying interior is semi-open and grassy, with thorny clumps of teasel and blackberry scattered around. Along the eastern edge is a grove of sturdy young pines, planted several years ago by Crowson as part of a restoration project.
Trout, salmon and steelhead congregate at the island’s northern end. Banks of Western pearl shell mussels cling to the riverbed.
Beavers gnaw on the willows at the water’s edge, and deer and coyotes are frequent visitors. Bald eagles patrol the skies during the winter, giving way to migratory songbirds in spring and summer.
“It’s a cool property,” Williams said. “It’s interesting ecologically given where it is on the river, at the confluence of the Long Tom.”
And even though Norwood Island is surrounded by working farms, there’s enough of a buffer zone along this reach of the river to provide a sense of isolation, where the loudest noise you hear is likely to be the wind in the trees or raindrops pattering on the water.
“Just listen,” Williams said, savoring the silence during a tour of the island.
“Even on the upper Willamette, finding a place where you don’t hear any cars, it can be kind of tough. Spots like this, you might hear an occasional vehicle … but they’re pretty few and far between.”