With the weather warming up, locals and out-of-towners alike are itching to get outside and enjoy sunny days in the Gorge, and while multiple agencies are working to reopen recreation in the Gorge, it is a challenge to get those sites back open safely.
Visitors flooded trails and recreation sites, particularly those in the Gorge, in the earlier days of the pandemic — ultimately prompting the U.S. Forest Service, Oregon and Washington State Trails, and other agencies to shut down hiking trails and other recreation sites in an effort to enforce social distancing guidelines. Now over a month into stay-home orders, officials are expressing interest in getting some of these sites reopened.
“What we’re hearing from a variety of folks is this idea of not being able to get outside is challenging to them,” said Lynn Burditt, Forest Service area manager for the Columbia River Gorge Commission, during a virtual meeting of the Wasco County Board of Commissioners. Like other counties in the area, Wasco County is working on a plan to reopen, and spoke to Burditt about how to approach reopening recreation sites.
While Oregon State Parks has resumed limited day-use service at some parks, the agency has stated that high-density parks on the north coast and the Columbia Gorge, among other areas, would likely be among the last to return to limited service, and no timeline has been announced for reopening those areas to the public. Washington State Parks has similarly announced that sites in the Gorge and along the coast would not be among those reopened by Washington’s Gov. Jay Inslee’s May 2 executive order.
Burditt said that they hoped to ease some recreational access by mid-May, but some questions regarding what restrictions to put in place need to be addressed before then, such as whether to close bathrooms, whether or not to have visitors pack-in/pack-out, and how best to approach fire season.
“I hear different things from different counties, so they may like the idea of ‘come self contained and we know that they’re going to come,’ but they also want their businesses to get some benefit from that,” said Burditt, “so I think there’s both ends that some of the counties are struggling with because you don’t want undue exposure, you don’t want resources negatively affected, and yet they want businesses to benefit.”
When asked by Commissioner Kathy Schwartz what the motivations were for reopening recreation in the Gorge, Burditt said, “It’s just that idea of people are becoming housebound and especially as we get into the really nice season, it’s going to be hard for people to stay away.”
The Forest Service is working with other agencies that manage recreation sites in the Gorge, Burditt said, with the goal of aligning their re-openings in order to disperse crowds.
“Everybody believes that we should be thinking about working together so that we all open it up together or we keep it closed together, and that’s the premise that everybody’s operating under,” said Port of Hood River Director Michael McElwee. The Port of Hood River manages recreation sites along the Hood River Waterfront; while they have closed the popular and frequently-crowded Event Site, the Waterfront Trail is open, and the port allows river access from some other sites — so long as there are no crowds. (An updated list of closures is posted on their website, portofhoodriver.com/whatisopen).
Hood River County recently reopened a network of trails with parking restrictions and other guidelines to promote usage by residents only, and the Port of Hood River has discussed the possibility of doing something similar at port-owned recreation sites along the Hood River waterfront.
“I would love to get that open for locals, but I worry that if we’re open before, say, Multnomah County, I fear we’re asking for it, and that would just kind of go against the purpose of getting locals to be able to go down there,” said Port Commissioner Ben Sheppard during a May 6 Port Commission meeting, “That’s my worry, is just too many people from out of the area coming; (and) how can we get this open for locals to be able to enjoy their town.”
Counties who meet certain criteria can begin the first phase of re-opening as early as May 15. As of press time, Hood River County had submitted an application to enter phase one and it was under review. Wasco County had not submitted an application by press time.