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How Much Love Is Too Much for the Gorge?

How Much Love Is Too Much for the Gorge?
Eastbound traffic backs up on the Historic Columbia River Highway on the approach to Multnomah Falls.
By Kevin Gorman
Executive Director

June 19, 2019

The Columbia River Gorge is loved by countless people, near and far. So many people, in fact, that a key challenge of the future is, “How do we love the Gorge without loving it to death?” 

As we approach the summer season of mile-long backups on the Historic Columbia River Highway and full trailheads full by 9 a.m., more voices are asking what’s causing the congestion and what can we do about it? 

Three primary causes of the congestion are clear. First, the region has become a prime travel destination. Portland tourism tax receipts went up 80 percent between 2010 and 2017, and from 2012 to 2017 the number of international passengers flying into Portland International Airport increased by 68 percent; domestic air traffic saw a similar rise. Second, 30,000 to 40,000 people a year are moving to the Portland metro area, and many come to enjoy a quality of life that includes the Gorge. Finally, 99 percent of Gorge visitors get to their favorite trailhead or scenic viewpoint using one form of transportation: private automobiles. 

The Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) and other agencies have added mass transit in the Gorge. That’s great, except it’s not part of a bigger plan so it does little to address congestion. 

Gorge congestion requires a holistic solution 

The Columbia Gorge is not a national park, but there are aspects of national parks that should be considered to address congestion. Utah’s Zion National Park is half the acreage of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area and receives more than double the visitors. Most visitors congregate along a six-mile corridor similar to our waterfall area. So Zion has implemented several strategies. In the 1970s, the Park Service took the dramatic step to close the Scenic Canyon Road to automobiles in the busy season. Despite initial concerns, use of buses was a huge success. Congestion on the road disappeared, bicycles started showing up, and the shuttle service provided local jobs. However, the shuttle service suffered as park attendance skyrocketed. The park is now considering bringing more electric buses into Zion, as well as limiting daily entry into the most congested areas. 

Similarly, ODOT recently finalized a congestion planning process for the Historic Highway. In the long run, it could mean that during busy periods, the waterfall section of the highway is only open to shuttle buses, cyclists, and local vehicles. Short-run solutions include having a flagger at Multnomah Falls and having Benson Lake serve as overflow parking for Multnomah Falls. Congestion relief steps are also occurring across the river in Washington, where the Dog Mountain parking permit system has reduced weekend congestion and improved safety. But its restrictions have at times left the parking lot half empty in peak wildflower season. We need to continue to assess, adjust, and improve. 

Gorge congestion needs to be addressed holistically. Fortunately, the Columbia River Gorge Commission and U.S. Forest Service are currently reviewing the National Scenic Area management plan. Any revisions to the recreation aspects of the plan should be based on recreation opportunities, visitor expectations, and natural resource protection. 

Gorge Towns to Trails – our vision for a 200-mile loop trail around the Gorge connecting communities, farmlands and wild areas – is a great example of how to protect lands through acquisitions and disperse recreation to less-popular areas and support local communities through a multi-day trekking system. We also should consider daily use permits for sensitive areas like Oneonta Gorge and recognize that some of the Gorge’s most sensitive areas should simply be off limits to any expanded recreation. 

Gorge transportation and recreation should be seen as an interconnecting web where transit options and trails systems traverse communities and landscapes throughout the entire Gorge. 

Joining together to embrace new opportunities 

All of these ideas require more funding, and one potential approach to that issue can be found in Washington Park in Portland. A few years ago Washington Park was facing unmanageable congestion, and various partners and stakeholders – including Metro, which owns the Zoo, Portland Parks & Recrereation, the Children’s Museum, Hoyt Arboretum, and others – got together and created a Transportation Management Association (TMA)

The TMA was able to set up a uniform parking system in Washington Park that includes about as many parking spaces as Rooster Rock State Park and generates more than $4 million a year in fees. That revenue pays for shuttle buses, websites that highlight transportation alternatives, and apps that can let people know where parking is available. Since implementing the TMA, private vehicle use in Washington Park has gone down and transit, bicycling, and car-share use has gone up. 

The Gorge is admittedly more complicated than Washington Park, but it has tremendous unifying factors: the National Scenic Area designation and a bistate management plan that can bring the necessary entities together. We can’t pretend to solve problems that will arise  50 or 100 years from now, but we can address our current congestion problem and embrace the opportunities in front of us. It is our time and our turn to take the reins and shape our future. 

Photo in body text: Heavy congestion at Oneonta Gorge in August 2016, before damage from the 2017 Eagle Creek fire closed Oneonta to visitors. (photographer: Kate Bailey French)