While it’s designated as a National Natural Landmark, nobody, save a few officials with Oregon State Parks and the Bureau of Land Management, is given access. It’s an attempt to protect a patch of pristine desert landscape.
CULVER, Ore. — The first thing you need to know about The Island is that you’re not allowed to go to The Island.
While it’s designated as a National Natural Landmark — one of 11 in Oregon — nobody, save a few officials with Oregon State Parks and the Bureau of Land Management, is given access. It’s an attempt to protect a patch of pristine desert landscape, and it looks like it’s working.
This fall, I was granted a tour of the peninsula, located at the heart of The Cove Palisades State Park, where two guides took me up to and across The Island, explaining what this place is and why it’s so fiercely protected from human interference.
I arrived at the trailhead on a cloudy Friday morning in September, when one of the first rains of the season came east of the Cascades. There I met Paul Patton, a resource specialist with the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, and Sarah Canham, a botanist with the Bureau of Land Management. Together, the two are responsible for approving access to The Island, and they like to be stingy about it.
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“Even we would rather not be up here, to tell you the truth,” Patton said.
They’re protective for good reason. The Island is considered one of the best and least-disturbed examples of native juniper savanna in the region. Its balance of juniper trees, sagebrush and bluebunch wheatgrass is pretty much perfect — a rarity in a desert landscape where juniper and invasive species run rampant.
In other words, it’s “more or less what central Oregon is supposed to look like,” Patton explained — an ecological Eden in a desert landscape that has been radically transformed by people.
We hiked the rough and unmanaged trail to the top, left that way to discourage trespassers from finding their way up. It’s also visible from the nearby park headquarters, where employees are trained to spot scofflaws.
It wasn’t always this way. For decades, The Island was a popular destination, a good place to climb for views of Lake Billy Chinook, the reservoir that feeds the Crooked, Deschutes and Metolius Rivers. By 1975, officials realized the importance of the place and nominated it as a National Natural Landmark, but the National Park Service passed, year after year, leaving local park officials to protect it on their own.
Between 1994 and 1997, roughly 2,000 people visited The Island, according to park statistics. The next year, the BLM started issuing permits to tour it, cutting back visitation to fewer than 100 people per year. In 2011, it was finally awarded the National Natural Landmark status, cutting it off from public access for good.
Today, fewer than a dozen people see it annually, Canham said, primarily land management employees volunteering for the annual weed-pulling day. That’s allowed for a rare display of terrain, 208 acres of eastern Oregon desert, left largely untouched to exist as is, reports The Oregonian/OregonLive (http://bit.ly/2dHIT4S).
“Even we would rather not be up here, to tell you the truth.”
The flat peninsula spread out as we reached the top of the trail. The overcast sun illuminated shades of yellow and blue in the clumps of bunchgrass, grasping to a thin layer of soil on top of the ancient volcanic rock. Vibrant shades of lichens grew on the rock and on the branches of old-growth sagebrush: bright oranges and greens in their twisted gray branches. Juniper trees old and young stood tall, their berries plump and plentiful.
The first rule on The Island is to step on the rocks, Patton told me. That’s to ensure the preservation of the soil crust — the crunchy layer of dirt, minerals and biological material that hardens in the arid climate. That crust plays an important role in the desert ecosystem, and it’s rare to see it so pristine.
We skipped from rock to rock, skirting along the eastern edge of The Island, stopping as Patton paused to explain the geology, the cultural history and the philosophical mission of their preservation.
Sure, nobody is allowed on The Island, he explained, but in that way it remains a place for everybody, somewhere we can learn about how our environment interacts without us. That opportunity — free of hikers, cattle or fire protection — is rare around the Pacific Northwest, making The Island a true island, isolated in a natural world run by people.
A SNAPSHOT IN TIME
During the formation of the Cascade Range, rivers that ran west through Oregon shifted north, depositing into the Columbia and cutting through what today are the canyons of The Cove Palisades. As the continent continued to shape up, those canyons were subsequently filled with lava flows, later carved down as the rivers returned.
The result is a strange bit of geology. Basalt lava rock is predominant on The Island, but so are deposits of jasper and agate — rocks typically found in large bodies of water. Looking off to the canyon walls of The Cove Palisades, you can sometimes see the layers of basalt meeting what was once the bed of a river.
The result is a spectacular sight, and humans have long recognized it. Local tribes visited the area first, carving petroglyphs into the rocks, and eventually white settlers showed up too. Homesteaders came first, followed in 1940 by state officials, interested in recreation. In 1964, hydroelectricity arrived, as crews finished the Round Butte Dam on the Deschutes River in the park, flooding the canyons to create a reservoir dubbed Lake Billy Chinook.
The park reflects centuries of human interaction with nature, from the lone surviving petroglyph rock to the old homestead road and, of course, the big dam itself.
The Island, meanwhile, has been all but removed from the human experience. There are no hiking trails, no livestock, no construction. The only sign of habitation up there is a pile of rusted tin cans, dumped by shepherds in 1921, left as relics from a bygone era.
It allows The Island to revert into what eastern Oregon was (and what some argue, should be): an untouched environment in harmony. It’s isolated, it’s pristine and those who watch over it would like to keep it that way.
After a couple hours, we made it out to the northern tip of The Island, where all three rivers become one body of water. Deep chasms are cut into the peninsula, evidence that parts of it are sloughing off and crumbling into boulders, some already piled below. Someday, this ecological Eden will be transformed dramatically once again — maybe into an inaccessible mountain of rubble. For now, it’s a perfect place to see how a piece of our environment grows and develops, free from human interference.
For those with a vested interest in our environment, that’s a really exciting opportunity. The price is access to a beautiful location, but everybody seems to agree that it’s worth it. Sure, you can’t hike on top of The Island, but you can see it just fine from any of the viewpoints in the park, or from the scenic Tam-a-láu Trail.
The respect that distance builds is palpable. Nobody protested the closure of The Island. Hikers today only trespass by mistake. Anyone who’s been up there knows it’s a special place, a place that makes sense to leave be.
“It’s kind of a perfect snapshot in time,” Patton said. “It’s a great place to talk about” — but only from afar.