By Sunnie Brown
It’s far from a secret: The Columbia River Gorge has it all. Waterfalls, wildflowers, wilderness, and a perfect Saturday afternoon adventure for anyone. However, it lacks a critical necessity to keep it pristine: a barrier of time or distance. And for Portlanders, this breach of barriers is a blessing; they can trade the sounds of the city for the brisk air of the Gorge within a half hour of easy interstate driving.
So, what’s the problem?
The problem is the Gorge trailheads are already bursting from overcapacity, and the problem isn’t diminishing anytime soon. Estimates by the Census Bureau reveal that between July 2014 and 2015, 780 people moved to Portland per week! In addition to the increased population at its boundary, the Columbia Gorge attracts plenty of marketing attention from top publications across the nation. The New York Times, Sunset Magazine, Travel Oregon, and National Geographic Travel boast the Gorge on their “Best Trips” lists year after year. Those 780 people per week have undoubtedly heard about the Gorge and it’s tributaries, and they’re eager to explore.
This perfect combination of population growth, ease of access, and interest in the outdoors has drastically amplified the impact of visitor traffic. Ask any steward of the Gorge and he/she’ll be quick to share stories of congested trailheads and viewpoints, obnoxious litter, the occasional dog running amuck, an underprepared tourist, or the emerging spur trails. The Forest Service categorizes these issues as “unmanaged recreation,” and the impact is increasingly visible and costly to local communities.
Off-course trails, also known as “rogue trail building,” are particularly visible because they disturb fragile habitat and compress and erode soil. For example The Forest Service delisted the Munra Trail because it wasn’t sustainable or safe. However, people hiked it anyway, and it became a large-scale rogue trail.
“Now the trail is hammered. People discovered it. It was promoted in the Oregonian, and now a lot of people are going there,” said Stan Hinatsu, Recreation Staff Officer for the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area. “It’s a mess up there now. This is the type of thing we’re seeing; places that used to be in decent condition are now hammered.” Trails that were once two feet wide are now six feet wide; trails that had lady fern and lupine now have trampled vegetation. Trails are becoming gullies, and slope-side shrubbery is washing away. Without strong management, the trails will suffer from overexertion.
With congestion, trail sustainability, and safety in mind, management teams are stirring into action. Teams compiled of several state agencies are currently planning strategies to deal with the increased demand. However, the agencies face a serious challenge of meeting demand without an increase in resources. Therefore, the mission right now is to launch short-term solutions and tackle the long-term later. “We recognize that the short term solutions are just that.” Mr. Hinatsu says, “They’re not going to solve the greater problem. We still need to dive into the longer term efforts, but we’re not there yet.”
At least the short-term solutions are in motion. The Oregon Department of Transportation is currently conducting a Columbia River Gorge Transit Study with goals to distribute recreation more evenly, ease crowding at Multnomah Falls, and reduce illegal parking that harms
foliage. A pilot transit service is proposed for summer 2016 and 2017 between Multnomah Falls and Gateway Transit Center. Depending on funding, in 2018 the line will connect all the way to Hood River. Although the transit line can decrease traffic and congestion on the road, the Forest Service does have concerns that it could actually increase visitor traffic; therefore, solving one problem at the expense of another.
It’s a fragile balance to educate visitors, and not inadvertently market the Gorge more. An enhanced public messaging system is another short-term solution in the works. The “Multnomah Parking Lot Full” sign on I-84 in Troutdale and Trip Check online were the initial steps, but the recreation managers are teaming with Weinstein Public Relations to infiltrate the messages with outdoor etiquette education.
“The largest group that visits the Gorge is the average, every day folks,” Mr. Hinatsu describes, “They are well intended, but they don’t understand their impact because they’ve never been taught.” The messages will encourage visitors to plan trips at less popular times and incorporate Leave No Trace’s Seven Principles, such as ‘Plan Ahead and Prepare.’ The idea is to encourage visitors to explore on a Wednesday instead of a Saturday afternoon, all while teaching them to minimize impact. Unfortunately, according to recent studies performed by Leave No Trace, “increasing knowledge about environmental impact does not necessarily equate to a change in an individual’s behavior.”
Although the most popular areas of the Gorge can afford much less attention in the spot light, smaller communities such as Stevenson, Carson, and Cascade Locks could really benefit from the tourists’ cash—but only if it’s balanced with sustainability. Since most of the traffic is condensed in the waterfall corridor, the area is bombarded with impact, but the small communities receive very little economic benefit.
Travel Oregon recognizes this and recently finished The Gorge Tourism Studio, which is the first step in restructuring the marketing of the Gorge. The program intends to dilute the impact at high-use areas by “reducing congestion during peak seasons and in high use areas; spreading the economic benefit; integrating cultural heritage into the visitor’s experience; and protecting the scenic, natural, cultural, and recreational resources.”
One strategy to achieve these goals is to create itineraries that reverse the typically traveled route, and inspire off-beat stops. For example, the itineraries might lead visitors up into White Salmon, down through Carson, and then into the waterfall corridor in the late afternoon; however, like the long-term planning by the Forest Service, the itineraries are still in the early stages.
The waterfalls of the Gorge have rightfully received plenty of marketing attention, but now state agencies have a massive challenge ahead. With the population of Portland growing drastically, ODOT, the Forest Service, and Travel Oregon face a daunting but critical management task. The long-term solutions will have to wait. At this point the mission aims to simply transport, educate, and distribute the visitors who happily, but haphazardly, pop into the Gorge for a beautiful Saturday afternoon adventure.