Cottonwood Crossing Summer Institute, June 17-22 at Cottonwood Canyon State Park
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Our 2017 Summer Survey to Oregon State Park visitors had over 9,000 responses!
We passed along all of the responses to the Oregon Parks & Recreation Department (OPRD). OPRD is the state agency that manages, staffs, and maintains the over 255 State Parks, Recreation Areas, Natural Areas, Scenic Viewpoints and Heritage Sites – as well as protecting and preserving the recreation, scenic, and natural resource values found on the Oregon’s ocean shore as directed by The Beach Bill!
We grouped together some of the common questions and comments and asked OPRD to shed some light on these topics. We know this doesn’t cover all of the comments from the survey – but we hope that it sheds some light on the most common questions.
Important introduction: Last year, Oregon State Parks attracted 2.7 million campers and 51.5 million day visitors. It consistently ranks in the nation’s top 10 State Park systems. The State Park system is not funded by taxes. Visitors, voter-mandated funding from the Oregon Lottery, and a share of recreational vehicle registrations fund the Oregon State Park system.
Topic #1 FEES AND DISCOUNTS
Question: Why aren’t there more discounts for different groups of users … and “off-season” rates?
Response from OPRD
Oregon State Park rates are historically low … for all visitors. We are more heavily reliant on revenue from visitors than most State Park systems in the US, and that strength has carried us through some rough times. The system is not yet perfectly sustainable, though, and whenever one of our three revenue sources — state lottery, RV registration, and visitors — dips or fails to keep up with inflation, it forces a decision about where to cut back. To keep serving people, we normally have to scale back new services and repairs, and neither choice is good in the long run. Offering a discount without a way to pay for it means we’d have to cut back some other service. Those trade-offs and a general sense of fairness have kept discounts for specific groups limited.
We did try a one-size-fits all off-season discount program for about 20 years and found it didn’t help us serve more people. Instead, we are designing a targeted discount program that will be driven by better thinking: where and when do we have capacity, specifically? Instead of a minor statewide discount, look for deeper savings at a more selective number of beautiful parks.
Question: Why are in-state and out-of-state fees and reservations the same?
Response from OPRD
Keep in mind that the Oregon State Park system are not supported by taxes.
Our one and only experiment with a nonresident surcharge didn’t go very well … we heard (loudly) from people visiting, local communities that rely on out-of-state tourism dollars, and Oregon families who loved reuniting with their relatives from all over the west, that the charge was a burden. The legislature intervened and directed us to remove the fee. Times have changed, but we’re still committed to treating people as equally as possible. Oregonian’s do the lion’s share of camping in their parks, followed by Washingtonians, then Californians. We do continue to look at better ways to serve everyone, and we start with questions like “What’s fair?” and “What’s our mission?” and “How do we make the system stronger and endure?”
Right now, we have no plans to set charges based on residence, but we never take any single idea off the table, and we do consider different charges based on residency every time we plan the revenue strategy. If it makes sense and helps the system serve better and answers these other questions, we might try it again.
Topic #2 RESERVATIONS
Question: There were many comments on having to make reservations so far in advance for some campsites/yurts/cabins.
Response from OPRD
There’s no getting around the fact the State Park system and the number of campsites hasn’t grown as fast as the Oregon population. We made changes to reservation rules a couple years ago to discourage customer habits (like booking more nights than needed) that made getting a reservation harder for the average person. We do review rules every year, but there are only a couple ways to truly address the fact there’s far more campsite demand than capacity: convince people to try underused parks or shift to less-congested times of the year, and build more capacity. We’re working on both, but more capacity takes considerable amounts of time, money, and careful planning to balance revenue and expenses. We’ll be working on ideas to market parks that have more space. As a visitor, you can get ahead of the curve by considering times and parks that are new to you. Go have an adventure!
Question: Why aren’t there more campsites that don’t require reservations and/or campsites that offer reservations?
There’s no magic formula for deciding how many parks to keep first-come, first-served versus making them available by reservation. Most sites in the system accept reservations for a practical reason: demand is high and people need to know they have a place to spend the night before they hit the road. Some smaller, less well-known parks are always first-come, first-served, and even parks that accept reservations always take first-come, first-served campers if the park has space.
Question: Why aren’t there more campsites?
Response from OPRD
It takes time, money, and planning to add campsites. We look at whether the land can actually support camping from a natural and cultural resource perspective, whether we can staff it, and if the park infrastructure — water, sewer, power — can handle it. To keep parks as natural as possible, we do our best to limit development to small pockets. We also have to check the park plan — a legal document adopted by local land use authorities — to see what’s permitted in the area. Doing development responsibly, and then setting aside the budget, going through design, and contracting for construction, takes years. The two-year state budget cycle makes it a little more challenging to make major investments, but we have projects working their way through this process now.
It’s important to remember as much as we adore the State Park system, there are other options. The Oregon Parks and Recreation Department awards millions in grants to cities, counties, park districts and others to develop more camping capacity across the state. Whether it’s at a State Park or not, exploring Oregon is worth your time. Find someplace new to you and give it a try.
Topic #3 ACCESS AND STAFFING
Question: How important is access to Oregon State Parks? In other words, how important is it to you that Oregon state Parks are easily accessible to everyone regardless of income, transportation, or physical ability?
Response from OPRD
A majority of respondents (63%) marked that it is very important. There were over 1,000 comments to this question on topics ranging from ADA-related issues, campsites/campground size – to RV accommodations.
Regarding ADA compliance, OPRD responds that …
We are constantly reviewing and improving universal access to State Park facilities and programs. Nearly all campground parks have ADA sites (some small, primitive tent campgrounds don’t). We are striving on two levels: first, to make sure we’re fully compliant with state and federal law. Second, to go beyond the law and simply do the right thing to ensure as many people as possible have an opportunity to enjoy Oregon outdoor recreation and heritage. This last goal is more far-reaching, and doesn’t have a finish line. Even if we were fully funded and fully staffed, we’d always be able to find ways to improve access and be more welcoming. We have staff and an advisory committee working on this issue.
We at the Foundation are also committed to increased State Park access. Our Ticket2Ride program exemplifies this commitment and provides transportation for Title I K-8 students to State Parks for a day of learning about nature.
Special Topic: Rangers
There were numerous survey comments about our amazing Oregon State Park Rangers. Our Rangers take special care of our State Parks and deal with issues ranging from facility maintenance, rules enforcement, volunteer management, and interpretive/educations programs. They are the best!!
Even though the State Park System is not funded by taxes, the State Legislature regulates staffing levels. After five straight years of record-breaking attendance, and more than 10 years of flat staffing (no staffing increases), OPRD asked the legislature to approve 42 new field staff. They approved 21. The vast majority of these are front line Rangers who help care for Parks and serve visitors. OPRD hasn’t yet assigned these positions to specific Parks, but they are close to making those decisions. The positions are funded with a combination of revenue from visitors (fees), a share of the voter-mandated Oregon lottery funding, and a portion of recreation vehicle registration fees. We all are excited for this staffing increase which will help keep our State Parks at their finest!
Note: For the up-to-the-minute State Parks closure updates, please visit OPRD’s website.
I had the opportunity today to tour the closed Historic Columbia River Highway and a number of the closed State Parks between Vista House and Cascade Locks with the Oregon State Parks Commission.
We owe a great debt of gratitude to the many firefighters who kept this fire from being even worse. It is an incredible tribute to them that there was no loss of life, and very minimal structural damage throughout the whole burn area.
The good news is that only about 1,000 acres of State Park property sustained fire damage, and no significant structures in the State Parks were burned. Most of the more than 46,000 acres that burned were on US Forest Service property, and while there are certainly large areas that have been burned, all is not lost. In some places, the fire mainly burned out the underbrush and scorched the trees, and in some places everything was untouched. I was amazed to see in some of the burned out areas that you could already see maple saplings popping up, only a month and a half after the fire started.
Our tour started at the Portland Women’s Forum, which is still open to the public, and then moved on. Unfortunately, the Vista House is still closed, not because of any damage to it, but because it provides easy access for people to get into the closed areas and put themselves and any needed first responders at risk. It is not clear when Vista House will be able to reopen.
(above – the view from Vista House looking east on the Columbia River at I-84 and Rooster Rock State park.)
At Multnomah Falls (managed by the US Forest Service, not a State Park), the Benson Bridge is still there, but the bridge leading up to it is burned out and will have to be replaced next Spring. For now, the Forest Service is hoping to open the parking lot between East & West I-84 by Christmas and allow access only to the Lodge. The Lodge structure is intact, but it sustained a lot of smoke and water damage and is being repaired. The Forest Service hopes to have the path up to the Benson Bridge open by summer. However, It will be at least a year (or more) before the switchback trails from the Benson Bridge up to the top of the falls can be made safe. A lot depends on how harsh the winter is. So much of the vegetation and moss that holds the hills together is gone and makes them susceptible to rain and slides.
Here are some pictures from Latourell Falls and Multnomah Falls. You can see that there while a lot was burned, there is still a lot of green.
As we moved through the closed areas, it was easy to see why the area is still closed. ODOT is having to clear the road every 24 hours from fresh rock and tree falls over the road. In a number of places, trees had fallen and damaged the retaining walls on the downhill side of the road as well. With large numbers of unsafe trees still marked for removal, regular rock & tree falls, and uncertainty about where the next debris flow, rock fall or tree fall will occur as we head into the winter rains, it seems doubtful that the Old Columbia River Highway will be safe for regular traffic before Spring.
At Ainsworth State Park, we saw the results of incredible efforts by the firefighters. While surrounded by burned areas, the campground was virtually untouched, and none of its structures burned.
Unfortunately, at Yeon State Park, the story was different, but again no structures were burned. These pictures give a better view of some of the burned areas. But, as you can see in the left photo, the fire sort of hopscotched through the area, and didn’t wipe everything out.
In general, I came away from the tour with a hopeful feeling. It is not a moonscape, and it will be an incredible laboratory to watch nature regenerate itself. I was impressed with the cooperation and coordination between the US Forest Service, the Oregon Department of Transportation and the Oregon Parks & Recreation Department. We have some great public servants working hard to make this iconic area safe and open for the future enjoyment of all. In the meantime, we all need to be patient and allow them to work and not interfere while they scale the rocks, fell trees and put up rock catches to keep us all safe.
NW Natural is celebrating its 10th year of Smart Energy this month. The carbon offset program has more than 39,000 residential and business customers enrolled across Oregon and Southwest Washington!
The company recently ran a campaign to donate $10 to the Oregon State Parks Foundation for every customer that enrolled in Smart Energy by a certain date. As a result, approximately $18,000 will be donated to the Oregon state Parks Foundation this year.
Many thanks to NW Natural for its commitment to environmental stewardship and its support of our efforts to increase environmental education, access, and healthy activities in Oregon’s State Parks.
Read the Smart Energy progress report, view a map of current projects, and/or enroll in the Smart Energy program at nwnatural.com/Residential/SmartEnergy or call 800-422-4012.
The fire season has affected State Parks in many areas, from places you’ve probably been like Ainsworth in the Columbia Gorge, to hidden gems like Alfred Loeb on the Chetco River near Brookings.
Last week, the Eagle Creek fire in the Columbia River Gorge captured attention in the Portland Metro area. In an incredible display of speed and power, it burned over 11 miles in one night through some very well-known and heavily used recreation resources in the Columbia Gorge on both US Forest Service lands and Oregon State Parks lands. Also, the Chetco Bar fire near Brookings is still the largest fire in the nation, and threatens the Alfred Loeb State Park.
The damage from Eagle Creek is not fully known. Fire crews are still in the process of putting the fires out, as it is only 7% contained. The Oregon Parks & Recreation Department (OPRD) will be working with local agencies, other land managers and non-profits to ensure that when properties are opened to the public they are safe, and that recreational use on those burned lands can be done in a manner that does not cause further damage.
Chetco and Eagle Creek are just two of the 31 active large fires being fought in the state. Luckily the facility damage appears to be minimal at this point. Based on what we’ve learned so far, it does not look like the State Parks in the Gorge have lost any significant structures, with the exception of damage to sections of the Historic Columbia River Highway like the Oneonta Tunnel. But there is obviously significant damage to trees and trails across the Gorge. It is not clear yet how much of this is on State Parks lands, so we don’t know how much of the trees, trails and campgrounds will have to be replanted, rebuilt or replaced.
Fire crews have worked extraordinarily hard to save parks from wildfires. They will eventually tame these fires as the weather turns, and after they do, recovery can begin. We don’t know how much we’ll need to rebuild or replace, but we know we’ll need your help to do it.
The smoke and evacuations all over the state have disrupted life, but also provided the opportunity for the State Parks staff to step forward and help the communities that they serve. Many parks on the South Coast have become a safe haven or temporary resting place for residents under evacuation orders, and there are several fire camps and incident command posts across the system.
The Oregon Parks & Recreation Department (OPRD) is working with fire officials to provide support where OPRD can to help get these fires under control and provide safe places for people who have been displaced.
Fire season is not over, and may not be for several weeks, or even months.
Over the next few weeks, OPRD and the Forest Service will coordinate to assess the effect on natural and cultural resources in the Gorge, come up with recovery plans, and then organize staff and volunteers to begin restoration.
There are now two ways to subscribe to 1859 magazine and support our great work in Oregon State Parks!
1859 Oregon’s Magazine is a proud supporter of Oregon State Parks Foundation. And now there are two ways to subscribe to the magazine and support our great work in Oregon State Parks!
1) Subscribe directly to 1859, Oregon’s Magazine and for each two-year subscription, they will donate $5 to our efforts to increase environmental education, access, and healthy activities in Oregon State Parks.
2) Become an Oregon State Parks Foundation Member at the $75+ level and receive a complimentary one-year subscription as a thank you gift from us!
Many thanks to 1859 Oregon’s Magazine for supporting Oregon’s amazing State Parks!