Eagle Creek Fire sparks new partnerships, diversifies tourism destinations in the Columbia River Gorge 

– At the fire’s one-year anniversary, Gorge communities and local organizations turn from recovery and look toward long-term sustainable tourism –

Cascade Locks, Ore. – August 30, 2018 – Last year’s Eagle Creek Fire was the most destructive fire in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area’s history. Beginning September 2, 2017, the fire scorched more than 50,000 acres, closed I-84 for almost three weeks and severely impacted tourism during high season. Despite this destruction, the Eagle Creek Fire also had many positive outcomes, thanks to the community spirit and support shown throughout the region, and it has helped spark new partnerships around Gorge tourism and shift visitation patterns.

“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. It was incredible, and a year later, we’re still grateful for all the support,” said Renee Tkach, Columbia Gorge Tourism Alliance board president. “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 2018, 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 Gorge 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 thanks 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 educate them on how to recreate responsibly.

The Columbia Gorge Car-Free website was launched by the Columbia Gorge Tourism Alliance, providing information about all the car-free transportation options to and within the Gorge, and helping to disperse and relieve congestion at popular trailheads and towns.

The Trailhead Ambassador Program launched in April 2018. 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, nine out of ten 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 due to the Eagle Creek fire. The extra dollars from hikers just stopping for lunch or a snack after a hike or swim in the Gorge can go a long way.”
About the Columbia Gorge Tourism Alliance
Formerly the Columbia River Gorge Visitors Association, CGTA is a partnership of Washington and Oregon tourism-related stakeholders representing various businesses, organizations, and public agencies that provide services and information to visitors throughout the Gorge. In spring 2017, it sponsored “We Speak the Gorge” customer service trainings in six sessions in The Dalles, Cascade Locks and Hood River. CGTA was formed after the Gorge Tourism Studio(GTS), a training program presented by Travel Oregon in spring 2016. The community’s successes following the program include the creation of five action teams focusing on: outdoor recreation; culinary/agritourism; regional marketing and tourism education; cultural heritage; and car-free transportation options; along with realizing the capacity for project staff from the Resource Assistance for Rural Environments (RARE) AmeriCorps Volunteers.