- Associated Press - Friday, June 27, 2014

COBURG, Ore. (AP) - Turning off from Coburg Road, a small gravel path leads to the heart of an hourglass-shaped restoration area surrounded by the Willamette River and a channel of the McKenzie River.

From a single spot on the shore, eagles, herons and dragonflies float in the air while otters and schools of fish calmly ride the currents.

Most days, the 1,100-acre plot of land known as Green Island is off limits to humans. But on Saturday, hundreds will gather for the Living River Celebration, an annual event hosted by the McKenzie River Trust. The nonprofit group works with landowners to preserve several thousand acres across Western Oregon, and Green Island is its largest property.

The free event from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. will include guided tours around the preserve, bird walks and 30-minute hay rides to the most northern parts of Green Island. About 800 people showed up for the inaugural celebration there last year.

The event also serves as an opportunity for individuals to take in a natural environment just a short drive from Eugene and Springfield, said McKenzie River Trust Executive Director Joe Moll, who on Thursday was among several volunteers at Green Island preparing for Saturday’s guests.

“For so much of us, this is where we are,” Moll said, alluding to the cellphone he had just pulled out. “But if you can get people to either bring (their phones) along or set them down, they begin to get it when you start to tell them about how important a river is and what it means to a community.”

Saturday’s celebration comes as the trust begins its last major restoration project on the island, at least for the time being.

The nearly $1 million project would improve fish habitat by better connecting three ponds, all former gravel pits, with the adjacent historic channel of the McKenzie River.

In 2010, the trust expanded the Green Island property by purchasing a 56-acre parcel that featured the pits. The land opened to mining after the river moved out of the way following major flooding in 1964.

The three ponds, which reach a maximum depth of 25 feet, are fed by groundwater throughout the year. The larger southern pit closest to the historic channel receives a small flow of surface water year-round.

All three ponds are inundated by water during high river flows.

The pits are home to a number of species, including protected Oregon chub and spring Chinook salmon. Fish trapped in the two northern ponds, including bass and bluegill, can fall prey to predators.

The work will give the fish now trapped in the ponds an escape route.

Crews with Wildish Construction Co. will move an estimated 100,000 cubic yards of earth. They also will reduce the slope of the pits so crews can plant native vegetation that will improve the habitat for fish that want to swim in the ponds. They also will fill and contour the bottom of the ponds to feature slopes, shoals and shallows less than 12 feet deep.

“The idea here is we’re kind of replicating what you would see naturally,” said Liz Lawrence, the trust’s director of resources.

The work is expected to take three months, starting after the Fourth of July holiday.

State law requires the trust as property owner to reclaim the former gravel pits into a beneficial use. In addition to improving habitat for fish, the sloping work is intended to meet those requirements.

Randy Hledik, Wildish’s general services director, said developers have turned former mining pits into ponds in residential neighborhoods and farmers have used them as cranberry bogs.

“There’s value for both urban and agriculture uses but we’re also seeing a considerable amount of restoration to wildlife habitat,” he said.

Lawrence said that, if support keeps coming, the trust is eager to explore acquiring new lands - and to continue hosting the Living River Celebration as an annual event.

Moll said the name “living river” refers to the fact that Green Island is a place where the river is allowed to flood and meander as it so desires. As proof, Moll pointed to a large clearing of cottonwood trees where the river previously ran, consuming about 10 acres of land.

“This kind of meandering is what the Willamette used to be like,” he said. “You go out and dig at the (Eugene) Airport and you’re going to hit gravel. It’s not because someone dumped it there, it’s because the river used to be out there.”

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Register-Guard Reporter Christian Hill contributed to this report.

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Information from: The Register-Guard, http://www.registerguard.com

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