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Land trust acquires Pierce Island in gorge

VANCOUVER — Columbia Land Trust has acquired ownership of Pierce Island, the iconic 136-acre Columbia River island that sits directly below Beacon Rock.

Pierce Island is one of the best remaining natural islands in the Columbia River Gorge and is one of the last remaining locations in Washington for persistent sepal yellowcress, a state-endangered plant that is a member of the mustard family.

“Pierce Island is a gem in the Columbia Gorge,” says Columbia Land Trust Forestry Initiative Manager Cherie Kearney. “If you stop and take in a good view of the island and its rugged shoreline, you will always see a bald eagle or osprey. It’s incredible that a native plant that learned to thrive with the river’s rise and fall still is found here.”

This is the fourth property in the Columbia River region that The Nature Conservancy has transferred to Columbia Land Trust over the last several years.

“Columbia Land Trust is the ideal partner to continue to steward Pierce Island on into the future as they’ve developed a deep and comprehensive conservation and stewardship strategy for the Columbia River region. We’re confident that the island will be in good hands and its conservation promise fulfilled,” said the Conservancy’s James Schroeder, conservation director in Washington State.

The previous three properties transferred to Columbia Land Trust include Wahkiakus Oaks, a 62-acre property on the Little Klickitat River in Klickitat County; 40 acres along Klickitat County’s West Major Creek, which protects forest habitat for rare orchids; and 95 acres of intact spruce-swamp wetland along Grays Bay in the Columbia River estuary.

The Nature Conservancy also provided an endowment of $120,000 for the stewardship of Pierce Island.

Those funds will ensure continuous on-the-ground habitat management, which is essential for a place like Pierce Island: The Columbia River’s continually changing flows mean that invasive weed seeds are deposited easily on the island. Garbage—from fence posts to fishing lines—also washes up on the island’s shores.

“We look forward to continuing the restoration work that the Nature Conservancy started almost 30 years ago,” says Columbia Land Trust Stewardship Director Ian Sinks. “Protecting key resources such as the sepal yellowcress, controlling invasive species, restoring the riparian forest and collaborating on salmon-habitat projects are all part of our plans for the property.”

Pierce Island provides important habitat for chum salmon. Currently there are just two tributaries of the Columbia River that provide nearly all of the habitat for federally threatened chum salmon in the lower reaches of the river. One of those is Hamilton Creek, which empties into the Columbia right next to Pierce and Ives Islands. Chum also spawn around the perimeters of these islands. That makes actively caring for the shoreline habitat of these islands critical.

The Nature Conservancy purchased Pierce Island in 1984, when the relatively pristine island was threatened by a proposal to clear-cut its forest to create a disposal site for dredge spoils from the construction of the Bonneville Dam. Lewis and Clark also mentioned the island in their journals, one of the islands near Beacon Rock that were “covered with tall timber.” In the late 1800s, Pierce Island and surrounds became a key area for one of the Columbia River fish wheels, water-powered nets that scooped up salmon and steelhead and extracted vast numbers of fish into the early 1900s until the wheels were banned.

Since early spring, Columbia Land Trust has been actively restoring Pierce Island’s habitat. The group has removed desert false indigo from an 85-acre footprint on the island. Desert false indigo is noxious weed in Washington that crowds out native plants and chokes the shoreline, negatively affecting spawning habitat for salmon. Volunteers will work to remove washed-up debris from Pierce Island’s shores.

Columbia Land Trust also will work to grow a healthy understory in the stands of black cottonwood-Oregon ash on the island; such forest habitats are increasingly rare in the lower Columbia River estuary, but important habitat for herons, cavity-nesting birds and migratory

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