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Willamette Week: Here's How Oregon Forests and Waterfalls Could Reopen in Coming Weeks

May 7, 2020
Categorie(s): In the Press

By Andi Prewitt, Willamette Week (view original story)

Temperatures are warming. We're closing in on the unofficial kickoff to summer: Memorial Day weekend. And after weeks cooped up at home, everyone is going a little stir crazy.

Gov. Kate Brown does have a path to get you outdoors for some recreation, and she released those details this morning.

Much of Oregon's parkland remains off limits. Brown opened some state parks Thursday, but coastal beaches and the Columbia River Gorge remain closed. The U.S. Forest Service says it will open its recreation areas gradually, in concert with the governor.


Observers tell WW the logistical difficulty of recreating during a pandemic isn't having people in the woods—it's getting them there without jamming parking lots and trailheads with crowds.

"I think there's a lot of looking at what facilities really make sense to open, and then how do you open in a way that just doesn't get overrun immediately," says Kevin Gorman, executive director of Friends of the Columbia Gorge. He expects the waterfall district to be the last spot to reopen. "It's so popular and it's hard to get space."

As Oregon reopens parks, Brown issued detailed rules for how they can operate.

All agencies overseeing parks and outdoor facilities must enact several safety measures to keep people physically separated and ensure conditions remain as sanitary as possible. So while parties of 10 or fewer may now go on a hike together, they still have to stay at least 6 feet away from others at all times.

Also, don't plan on holding barbecues in the park or participating in a game of pickup basketball any time soon. Day-use areas that attract crowds, like picnic shelters, sports courts, playgrounds and pools, will remain closed.

You may also notice other physical distancing measures, like every other bench cordoned off with tape or picnic tables placed unusually far apart from one another, along with clear signs reminding folks to keep their distance.

And restrooms must be cleaned at least twice a day and resupplied with soap, hand sanitizer and the most precious of commodities during these times—toilet paper. Sites where that's not possible will result in closed toilets, so be prepared for that, as well.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Forest Service is just one of the agencies working to reopen certain areas in the highly popular Columbia River Gorge. Restrictions will gradually be lifted at sites where it's easiest to follow U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines—like physical distancing—and the federal agency has not set any hard dates for allowing the public access to its locations.

Attractions that draw throngs of people, like any waterfall along the Gorge's scenic corridor, the Sandy River Delta, or Dog Mountain and Cape Horn on the Washington side of the Columbia, will take the longest to reopen. Agencies that have jurisdiction over those sites are working on new approaches, such as a permitting system, to reduce traffic.

There is also no rush to allow overnight stays, so keep your tent stowed for now. While the governor did say that city, county and federal agencies could consider reopening campgrounds, Oregon State Parks and the U.S. Forest Service are allowed to determine their own timelines based on readiness to implement safety measures. The same applies to visitor centers, which may end up with plastic barriers that are now standard issue at grocery and drug stores.

If all of the talk about pandemic preparedness has got you too nervous to even think about lacing up your hiking boots, consider participating in a virtual jaunt outdoors. Throughout May, Friends of the Columbia Gorge is hosting an online series called Gorgeous Wildlife, led by local specialists.

The three-part webinar kicks off at 6:30 pm Thursday, May 14, with biologist and Clark College professor Steven Clark, who will present his research on the American pika. The fluffy creature that looks like a cotton ball crossed with a mouse normally prefers alpine climates, but has found a happy home right in our backyard: the Columbia River Gorge. Here's the link to register for the webinar.

Tess Riski contributed reporting to this story.