Travel restrictions and concerns about contracting COVID-19 made camping and hiking more attractive than ever in 2020. Millions of people around the country went camping for the first time last year, and it seems like that trend is continuing this summer, even as pandemic restrictions are ending. An influx of new and inexperienced visitors presents challenges and opportunities for campground hosts, park rangers and surrounding communities. We dig into those challenges and opportunities with Zach Urness, outdoors editor for the Statesman Journal. We’ll also hear from Jason Wagoner, an Oregon park ranger at Silver Falls State Park and Renee Tkach, a project manager for Friends of the Columbia River Gorge.
This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB. This is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. Travel restrictions and concerns about contracting COVID-19 made camping and hiking more attractive than ever in 2020. So millions of people around the country went camping for the first time last year. And it seems like that trend is continuing this summer, even though pandemic restrictions are ending. The influx of new and inexperienced visitors has presented challenges and opportunities for campground hosts, park rangers and surrounding communities. Zach Urness is the outdoors editor for the Statesmen Journal and he joins us now. Once again, Zach, welcome back.
Zach Urness: Hey, Dave! Thanks for having me back.
Miller: Let’s start with the big picture. In the lead up to summer, you said online and on your podcast that this would be a chaotic and bonkers summer. What did you mean?
Urness: Well, I would say that the fact that the influx of people heading outdoors during the pandemic was expected to continue. The outdoors was shut down for two months at the beginning of the pandemic and when it reopened, people just went outdoors in droves and that continued all through the summer of 2020, through the winter, actually, and continued into the spring and summer, especially with the heat wave. The issue is that this influx of people was happening at the same time that we were coming into a really strange summer, one where we had massive wildfire closures after last year’s Labor Day fires. Huge areas that people just weren’t allowed to go due to safety concerns. Then we’ve got the droughts, we’ve got new permit systems, we’ve got sometimes limited services at hotels and restaurants and to cap it all off, now we’re seeing active wildfires. Overall there’s never been more going on at the same time, more people are going outside. It’s just really important to do your homework and know what you’re coming into.
Miller: What do you mean by that? What’s the homework that people need to be doing?
Urness: Well, for example, pretty close to where I live there’s the Opal Creek area, a beloved area that just about everybody went when the temperatures got above 90° because you had old growth forests, you had emerald swimming holes. So everybody wanted to go there. Well, because of the fire, that area is completely closed off and knowing that ahead of time is really important because you don’t want to jump in the car and get out there. In addition, because there’s so many people outdoors, it’s really hard to get a campsite in some areas, especially well known campsites. Making a reservation, which might have been kind of important in the past, is kind of critical now. Knowing how busy a place might get, it’s just more important to have a good feel for the place you’re going to have a backup. If you get to a trailhead and it’s so busy that you can’t find a place to park, you want to be able to have a backup. Researching the places that you’re planning to go is just critical this summer.
Miller: We got a voicemail about this from Jeff Heino who called in from Albany, who called in about access to campgrounds.
Unress: They’re really getting difficult to reserve because you have to start so far in advance. But I think another reason is that people can reserve a campground sometimes for up to three weeks. I think this needs to be changed to two weeks maximum or perhaps even one week for popular locations.
Dave Miller: Zach, have you heard people talking about this saying it’s both an issue that you have to plan way in advance? But even so some people are just taking these places for too long.
Urness: That’s been an issue for a long time and that’s kind of a relic of the federal government’s old system in terms of what they would allow. In the past, this wasn’t such a striking issue. There were usually places that you could get and so they’re a little bit more loose with how long you could reserve a place. I’ve heard that constantly, that people would reserve for a really long time, a really popular place and wouldn’t allow others to get in there.
Miller: What are the ways in which fire damage from last year’s Labor Day fires all over the state have affected outdoor recreation this year?
Urness: Well, it’s just not having those places open. That dynamic of more people than ever going outside, but less public lands than ever open to getting there. The concern obviously is that in these fire burned areas there’s hazard trees and so the concern is that people are going to get hurt, they’re going to get lost if they go into these areas, so that’s why they’ve been closed off. But it pushes people to other locations. So, in the Opal Creek example, since those swimming holes aren’t open, the thousands of people that used to go there are getting pushed to other areas that maybe aren’t set up for those levels of crowds. So it’s just had kind of a discombobulating effect.
Miller: If you’re just tuning in, we’re talking right now about the increase in outdoor recreation around the Northwest. We’ve been talking with Zach Urness, he is the Outdoors Editor for the Statesmen Journal, also the host of the Explore Oregon podcast. He is still with us. Jason Wagoner joins us on the line now. He is an Oregon Park Ranger at Silver Falls State Park. Jason Wagoner, welcome to Think Out Loud.
Jason Wagoner: Great! Thanks for having me.
Miller: Thanks for joining us. What has this summer been like so far at Silver Falls?
Wagoner: Silver Falls is an extremely popular park anyway, so this summer we have reached, not capacity, but as far as camping goes, pretty much capacity in our day use areas have been extremely busy. But I would like to emphasize something that Zack did say, I think this winter and the spring were busier than in previous seasons. That’s kind of really shown on just how we’ve had so many more visitors up to this point so far.
Miller: So is that something that you get the sense is going to continue? Because, as I mentioned in the intro, the theory, it’s hard to know. We’re talking about so many people with all their own individual reasons for doing things, but the theory was that people saw this as something that they could do, even if they hadn’t done it before, that would be safer and available to them. Maybe they weren’t going to be going far away, and so they were looking for things to do in Oregon. Times are changing slowly. We’re entering a very different part of the pandemic. Do you get the sense that now that people have gone to Silver Falls before, maybe, last summer that they want to come back?
Wagoner: I do have that experience so far. Also with the restrictions on the other public lands, we have so much land that burned in the recreation area near us, we are getting a lot of visitors that would commonly hike in some other access areas, but they’re coming here instead and they’re enjoying it, but they are new visitors to Silver Falls State Park, whereas they maybe did some more back country style hiking in other areas before.
Miller: What have you been doing to try to manage the influx of people? If you’re having more people in what used to be the off season than ever before, what has that meant in terms of trying to deal with that influx?
Wagoner: Well, some of it has, just with the COVID restrictions lifting, we’re just now starting to really see larger and larger groups again where previous to that, a lot of our visitation was smaller groups or individuals that were hiking more. We’re starting to transition into visiting with groups and allowing them access. We do a lot with volunteers and we’ve also shifted some of our staffing more of an interpretation or a welcoming sort of position to try and help people get oriented and get them in the right locations. With the excessive heat that happened recently, we really tried to just put out a safety warning for some of the new visitors.
Miller: My understanding is that so far in the Willamette Valley, Oregon state parks, none of them have burn bans in effect right now. They are in effect in some other state parks in eastern Oregon, for example. Do you get a sense that that’s going to change in the Willamette Valley? Will there be a time soon when visitors cannot have campfires?
Wagoner: That’s really hard to say. We get all of our campfire information from ODS and once they put out the different destinations, we follow them to the best of our abilities. There is a high likelihood of limitations this year with the dryness of the region, so it’s not something that we look forward to, but there is the possibility.
Miller: Jason Wagoner, thanks very much.
Wagoner: Thank you.
Miller: Jason Wagoner is a Park Ranger at Silver Falls State Park. Zach Urness is with us. He is the Outdoors Editor for the Statesmen Journal and Renee Tkach joins us now on the line. She is a Project Manager for Friends of the Columbia River Gorge. Renee Tkach, welcome to Think Out Loud.
Renee Tkach: Thanks Dave. It’s great to be here.
Miller: It’s great to have you on. What do numbers of visitors, hikers primarily, in the Gorge, what do they look like in recent years?
Tkach: As Zach and Jason referred to, we, over the last year during the pandemic, have seen a gigantic jump in visitors to the Columbia Gorge trails. But we also started seeing some different trends, really starting to increase the demand for the trails. Starting back in 2015 and a little bit before. For example, in 2015 in many of the different sites in the Columbia River Gorge on trail heads, we had less than 50 weekly visits during the month of January. In January of 2020, we were seeing an average of 150 visits, and this is in the middle of the time of year when normally the gorge is pretty slow and quiet because there’s snow and ice storms and it’s cold, but that didn’t slow people down. So the steady increase and jump for demand is really evident.
Miller: I want to play both of you a voicemail that we got that has both an observation and a request for some practical information. Here we go.
Caller: Hi my name is Timothy. I’m from Vancouver, Washington. Our family loves camping. We like to go out regularly and we have noticed that our favorite places and places in the region are more crowded. It’s good to share, I think and the more people that appreciate the outdoors, I think is a good thing. One distressing part of it is how much TP and human waste has been out there. We were at Mount Adams and I have never seen so much waste everywhere, which definitely impacts the enjoyment of going out in the woods. So if you guys could give a short tutorial or tips for new campers on how to go in the woods, I think that would be a really useful service. Thank you.
Miller: Zach, do you want to take the first attempt at this one, advice for newbies, on how to poop in the woods?
Urness: Sure I’ll do my best. I mean you dig a cat hole and I try to put myself in a position where I have a plan for that and I make sure that I’m bringing a shovel and toilet paper and I know I’m going to do that.
Miller: It’s obviously a little bit funny in some ways because humans are always squeamish about this kind of thing, but that’s not really a joke. I saw an article about a Park Ranger, I think it was in Utah who on one stretch of the trail picked up 9 pounds of human waste and brought it back and took care of it. This was just on one trail. Renee, is either, whether it’s human waste or just trash, have you seen an uptick on your beloved trails?
Tkach: Yes, Absolutely. There is the trail of toilet paper at many different sites in the Gorge. And typically you’ll see it kind of further in. During the pandemic, many of the bathrooms were closed. So folks were being encouraged and educated to be prepared and really think about your 10 essentials and really the ‘leave no trace’ ethic out there. But in the Gorge, we have a great site called ‘Ready Set Gorge’. It’s a great place to access all of these different little pieces of information: How do you behave out there? What do you do when you have to go to the bathroom? So I think those are all helpful.
Miller: We have time for one more voice mail. This is Bruce Sanders who called in from White Salmon, Washington.
Caller: I’m a longtime camper. I’m 72 years old. Still very active in the woods. Used to like to fish until 10 million other fishermen showed up. Used to like to do a lot of other things, especially camping. We’ve been overrun by Portland, Vancouver, California, it’s game over. Not only are my camping sites taken, they’re overrun, they’ve got 5,10 parties where 1 party used to camp. There’s no rules. They party, shoot off guns. This is like what it would be like to go 10 years ago, 20 years ago to go camping in California. We get to have the California experience now, aren’t we lucky? No, we’re not and neither is the wildlife. The only wildlife that’s having a good time is the great American mosquito.
Miller: Renee, there’s a kind of ‘get off my lawn’ vibe to that. Or maybe an: ‘I was here first, this is my camping site’ vibe to it. But also, I mean he’s saying that these spaces were not created for the number of people that are now trying to access them. Do you think he’s right?
Tkach: I absolutely think he’s right. The demand for recreation...
Miller: It looks like we... you’re back, good. You said the demand is, that was the last word we heard.
Tkach: Oh I’m so sorry. So the demand for access to recreation has increased with the increase of population in Portland and Vancouver. We can see directly correlation of the years of the increase in the population of our metro areas into what that translates out here under the recreational land. It’s really that the lines are moving together. So he is right. I think there is a strong call for: is there a sustainable way to create more recreation sites and trails here in the Columbia River Gorge and in the region as a whole? To really satisfy that demand to really disperse the use.
Miller: Zach, how do you think about this? I mean you’re, among other things, a kind of outdoor evangelist. That’s part of your job is to educate people about the wonders of the Northwest and to tell them where to go and how to find some of these wonderful things. At the same time, we hear all these stories about ways in which when the more people there are the more potential problems there are. How do you think about that tension?
Urness: Well, I think you’re seeing land managers react to this new reality. For example, there’s a new permit system that is in place for a huge swath of the Three Sisters, Mount Jefferson and Mount Washington wilderness areas, that, in effect, limits the number of people that can be out there. That’s one thing, land managers are reacting to what’s going on. The other thing though, that I mentioned is if you go to a popular trail on a Saturday afternoon in the middle of summer, it’s going to be crowded, it’s going to be slammed. But there are a lot of ways to get around that and still have a good experience. If you can go midweek, do that. If you can get to the trail. There’s a trail called Saddle Mountain in the Coast Range outside Portland, it’s very popular. What I do is I try to get there at sunrise if I’m going there on a weekend. I have the trail all to myself and when I get back down the parking lot is full. But if you get there early,
you can have a great experience. Get a forest service map and look at little, off the beaten track, primitive campsites. Very often and especially midweek, you can find a campsite there. It just requires moving beyond your comfort zone, moving beyond what you see on Instagram to find different places and do them differently.
Miller: Zach Urness and Renee Tkach, thanks very much for joining us.
Urness: Thank you.
Miller: Zach Urness is the host of the Explorer Oregon podcast and Outdoors Editor for the Statesmen Journal. Renee Tkach is a Project Manager for Friends of the Columbia River Gorge.
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