Will wildfire and smoke kill tourism?

Will wildfire and smoke kill tourism?

During the nastiest days of the spotted owl war, Oregon’s environmentalists frequently reminded their rural brethren that “tourism is the future.”

I was living in southern Oregon at the time, so the reminders took on a local flavor: the Shakespearean Theatre and Britt Music Festival at Ashland were constantly in the news. So were the Oregon Caves near Cave Junction.

All three were touted as great business models for rural Oregonians who were losing their logging and sawmilling jobs by the thousands. Never mind that all three business modes featured mostly low-wage seasonal jobs, not the family-wage jobs with health insurance and retirement plans that most mills offered.

My great aunt, who taught at the college level in Montana for 40-some years, was considered one of the world’s leading authorities on Shakespeare’s writings. She helped Angus Bowmer get his theater started in Ashland, so I was quite naturally drawn to it during my southern Oregon years. I was never a Shakespeare fan [much to my aunt’s horror] but the pageantry is something worth seeing.

I also saw some great performances at Ashland’s Britt Music Festival: Tony Bennett, Bozz Skaggs, The Steve Miller Band, B.B. King and The Kingston Trio. Great stuff, and a lot of fun sipping wine while watching the moon rise over the grassy slopes that overlook the Britt stage and the beautiful Rogue Valley. No wonder more than 62,000 attended its 36 performances last year.

The claustrophobic Oregon Caves were also great fun. They reminded me of my glory days in the bottom of the Bunker Hill Mine. I worked my way through the University of Idaho about a mile beneath the streets of Kellogg, my home town.

For me, nothing in southern Oregon matches the Rogue River’s wondrous scenery and its spectacular steelhead fishery. I’ve been casting flies 66 of my 74 years, and can still remember my first Rogue summer steelhead, caught at the top end of Carpenter Island in August of 1971 on a No. 8 Royal Wulff tethered to a fine old three-piece split bamboo rod I bought in 1962 from an Italian rod builder named Joe Inama, who had moved to Kellogg to be closer to his children.

My love of the Rogue led to my becoming friends with Bob Hamlyn. Bob founded Rogue Jetboat Excursions at Grants Pass in 1986, the same year I moved there to ramp up Evergreen Magazine. Bob had the crazy idea that if you threw a few jet boats into the Rogue, people would come from all over world for a chance to experience its immense power and beauty. Two years later, he bought out his only competitor on the river.

From May through September, some 70,000 tourists and locals ride from Grants Pass downriver to the open-air OK Corral restaurant in one of Bob’s custom-made 50-passenger boats. Fly fishing purists don’t much care for the turbidity the boats can sometimes cause, but the Rogue carries a lot of natural sediment, so I never thought Bob’s boats were much of a problem. Still don’t.

Why bring these personal remembrances about Shakespeare, Britt, the Oregon Caves and Rogue [now Hellgate] Excursions to you?

Two reasons: first to say that Oregon environmentalists who routinely made my life miserable during the spotted owl wars were right. Tourism does have a great future in Oregon, just as it does in every western state. But now those of us who were on the front lines in that long-ago war have a new problem that I hope will draw us together in the same way forest collaboration has drawn us together.

The problem is wildfire – not just the flames that have incinerated millions of National Forest acres over the last decade - but also the carcinogenic smoke that is costing tourist-related businesses – everything from luxury destination resorts to roadside espresso stands - hundreds of millions of dollars annually. Our wildfire season is now 78 days longer than it was in 1970, and the string of smoke-related losses associated with wildfires’ long shadow has increased significantly.

Last summer, eight Shakespeare performances were cancelled, prompting the loss of 12 stage worker jobs this season. At least they won’t have to wear gauze masks in their new jobs, as many of them did last summer.

I don’t know if there will be any layoffs at Britt this season, but the first sentence on their website references the wildfire-related challenges associated with the 2017 season. Not a hopeful sign for this season, which will again be shrouded in putrid wildfire smoke containing microscopic particles that easily worm their way into the deepest recesses of your lungs.

Thanks to the 2017 Chetco Bar Fire, air quality in southern Oregon’s bucolic Illinois Valley was the pits for weeks in August and September, normally peak visitor months for the Oregon Caves. The smoke was so thick along the road leading from Cave Junction to the Caves that travel was unsafe.

And Hellgate Excursions? They parked their 10 boats a week earlier than normal. Using the bare bones $31.75 ticket price, the iconic Hamlyn family lost north of $111,000. I’ll hazard a guess that Shakespeare lost even more.

And then there is the Sisters, Oregon music festival, which was cancelled in total. I have no idea what the cancellation cost Sister’s restaurants and trinket shops, but we spent at least $500 on tickets, food and drink the year we went. Multiply our fun by 5,000 visitors and we’re talking real money in a town that wouldn’t even exist were it not for the generosity of tourists looking for a good time.

Tourism and South Coast Lumber Company have been the sum of the economy in Brookings, Oregon for as long as I can remember. My late father and I chartered salmon and bottom fishing boats moored at Sporthaven many times. I first met Virgil Frazier, South Coast’s timber manager, during Evergreen’s early years. God only knows where he buys his logs now that much of the Rogue-Siskiyou National Forest has been reduced to black sticks. First the 1987 Silver Fire, 111,000 acres; then the 2002 Biscuit Fire, 500,000 acres; and last summer, the horrific Chetco Bar Fire, 190,000 acres.

The Rogue-Siskiyou was still the Siskiyou when I first toured it in the company of Les Olson, who logged for South Coast for many years. Les appeared on the cover of Evergreen Issue No. 1, published in the Fall of 1986. I took his picture on a slope above the headwaters of the Chetco River. I think I only saw him again once after our day in the woods, but for reasons I cannot explain, I can still call up his image in my mind’s eye: piercing blue eyes, white goatee, gray and white hickory shirt, black suspenders and silver hard hat. Caricature in real life.

Why do I still remember Les Olson after all these years? I think it is because there aren’t many loggers like him in the woods today. Sad, because we need them now more than ever. They are the ones who instinctively know how to thin dead and dying trees from forests before they go up in godawful fire and smoke. I know it sounds counter-intuitive, but tourism won’t survive without good loggers. My conservationist friends agree.

I have no idea what last summer’s wildfire debacle cost tourism in Idaho or Montana, but it surely runs into the hundreds of millions of dollars for each state. A record 3.3 million visited Glacier National Park last year. Imagine what it might have been had the west side of the park not been closed by fire and smoke for most of September.

You could have fired a cannon down the fairways at the Coeur d’Alene Resort’s world-class golf course in August and not hit anyone. And even if you had, you wouldn’t have known it for the smoke. I know because we live about five miles from the Resort’s splendid golf course.

We prefer fly fishing to golf, and much to our unhappiness, we were run off the Kootenai River for the first time ever by smoke that was so thick you could not see across the river from our cabin. In just one August week, cancellations cost our guide friend, Dave Blackburn, more than $10,000. That’s devastating when your entire business year is only 120 days long.

Thanks to my late friend, Dick Smart, who pioneered northern Idaho’s “Rails to Trails” phenomenon, bicycling has become a big deal – and a big business – here. Just last week, there was a story in the Coeur d’Alene Press touting a just released Boise State University study estimating that tourists spend $25 million annually in northern Idaho’s state parks. I don’t doubt it, but our bike trails, walking paths and lakes were very quiet in August and September. Visibility on Coeur d’Alene Lake was down to less than a half-mile. The sun was a distant orange ball in a threatening black sky.

When Bill Greeley was named Chief of the Forest Service in 1920, he said one of his goals was to “run smoke out of the woods.” He was largely successful, but switch reels and come forward some 90 years and Greeley’s bold declaration becomes a question in reverse: “Will smoke run tourists out of the woods?”

If what we witnessed in a packed-to-the-rafters RV park on Lake Pend Oreille last Labor Day weekend is an indicator, the answer is “Yes.” By noon on Labor Day, ours was one of only two RV’s left in the park. More than 60 had departed because choking smoke made it impossible to venture outside.

Not good when your kids and grandkids are cooped up inside an RV, no matter how many wide screen TV sets it features. We reluctantly pulled out later that afternoon after learning that the park’s Four-Star restaurant would not open at 2 p.m. and that the evening’s much anticipated live music concert beside the lake had been cancelled.

We then headed for Missoula to help our daughter enroll at the University of Montana. From her dorm room, which faced east, I could barely make out the big white “M” that overlooks Washington Grizzly Football Stadium. I later learned that the university’s health clinic was overflowing with kids suffering from bronchitis – our daughter among them. Welcome to college life in Missoula.

Does anyone know how many outdoor activities were cancelled in August and September in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana? I don’t, but it surely runs into the hundreds. This year will be worse.

If this is the “new norm,” as some wildfire defeatists seem to enjoy reminding us, our robust tourist industry will eventually be crushed in the same way more than 700 family-owned lumber companies were after the federal government decided to add the northern spotted owl it its list of threatened species.

Everything I’ve seen and learned over the last 32 years tells me in my guts that we need to very worried about the distinct possibility that wildfire and the smoke will kill our robust tourist industry just as surely as it is killing us.

A timely question worth asking is, “Will the vast network of businesses that cater to tourists – from the “mom and pops” to the multinationals - join the ranks of conservation-minded forest restoration collaboratives that are trying to save western tourism from the ravages of wildfire and smoke?”

I hope so.

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