CASCADE LOCKS – Last year’s Eagle Creek Fire continues to influence the Gorge, according to a press release from the Gorge Tourism Alliance.
The fire was the most destructive in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area’s history, scorching more than 50,000 acres and closing I-84 for almost three weeks, which severely impacted tourism.
Despite this destruction, the Eagle Creek Fire also had many positive outcomes, including the community spirit and support shown throughout the region. The fire also helped spark new partnerships around Gorge tourism and shift visitation patterns, according to the press release.
“The Gorge communities rallied together as never before and, after the freeway reopened, people beyond the Gorge really wanted to ‘Show the Gorge Some Love’ by coming out to support local businesses,” said Renee Tkach, Columbia Gorge Tourism Alliance board president.
“It was incredible, and a year later, we’re still grateful for all the support,” said Tkach. “This past year, everyone pulled together for the recovery efforts and moving forward, we will continue to help develop more sustainable ways for the Gorge to be explored.”
The 2017 wildfire season had a significant impact on tourism spending across the state and in the Mt. Hood/Gorge region.
According to a study done by Travel Oregon, working with Dean Runyan Associates and Destination Analysts in March, there was an estimated $51.1 million in lost tourism revenue statewide, and an $8.3 million loss in the Mt. Hood/Gorge region.
Statewide, impacts were felt most strongly by food and beverage service ($13.9 million) and lodging ($13.5 million), followed by retail businesses ($3.9 million).
While some businesses are still recovering from the loss of tourism dollars last fall, many Gorge regions that were previously less visited — especially those to the east and on the Washington side of the Columbia — experienced a big boost from increased tourism.
This was due, in part, to an increase in new and expanded tourism programs in the Gorge that encourage car-free transportation and introduce visitors to new trails on both sides of the Columbia, plus educaton on how to recreate responsibly.
The Columbia Gorge Car-Free website was launched by the tourism alliance to provide information about all the car-free transportation options to and within the Gorge, and help to disperse and relieve congestion at popular trailheads and towns.
The Trailhead Ambassador Program launched in April. Based on a 2017 pilot project to address wildflower season congestion at Dog Mountain, this expanded effort is a collaboration amongst Friends of the Columbia Gorge, the Mt. Hood and Columbia Gorge Regional Tourism Alliance, the U.S. Forest Service and Oregon State Parks.
The program trained volunteers who were stationed at some of the busiest trailheads in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area and Mt. Hood National Forest, providing visitors with information needed for a safe, informed, and positive experience when hiking and visiting in the region.
As of July 31, 91 people had volunteered, donating 1,700 hours and engaging with more than 15,500 visitors at eight trailheads, including Multnomah Falls, Latourell Falls, Cape Horn, Mirror Lake and Trillium Lake. Two more trailheads, Timberline Lodge and Tamanawas Falls, were added in August.
The Columbia Gorge Express bus service expanded both in terms of days and stops in its third season, with daily service from Portland to Rooster Rock State Park, Multnomah Falls, Cascade Locks, and Hood River. Ridership estimates show an 18 percent increase in ridership from 2017, with most users accessing public lands along the Gorge corridor.
Also in its third year, Ready, Set, GOrge!, an ongoing public education campaign aimed at improving the visitor experience in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area — and a collaboration between the U.S. Forest Service, Friends of the Columbia Gorge, Travel Oregon and the Oregon Department of Transportation — provided up-to-date information on open trails and how to safely travel to, from and around the region while protecting it so that future generations can enjoy it, too.
“A silver lining of the Eagle Creek Fire was that people got out of their routines and discovered wonderful new towns, trails and businesses. But the bottom line is that this hot, dry weather is our new normal.
“Nationally, wildfires are human caused, and we need to be fire-aware at all times during peak wildfire season,” noted Tkach. “We also need visitors to work together with residents by recreating responsibly and helping support Gorge business still recovering from lost sales.”