In September 2020, the Santiam Canyon experienced wildfires that burned more than 200,000 acres in the Detroit, Mill City and Gates areas. These fires left almost 725 homes in need of replacement or repair in Marion and Linn counties and damaged integral infrastructure to the region. The communities, which are largely reliant on the tourism economy, saw a loss of an estimated 250 jobs and about $4.4 million in annual income post-fire.
In addition to critical infrastructure, the wildfires also impacted a large quantity of recreational sites in the area. The Beachie Creek and Lionshead fires impacted a collective 59.1 miles of trail, 36 trailheads, 21 campgrounds and six day-use areas. More than a year later, at least 30 managed recreation sites remain closed. Popular sites like Opal Creek and Three Pools Day-Use Area, which draw upwards of 450,000 visitors annually, were closed due to fire impact. Post-fire there were closer to 10,000 annual site visits to these areas.
Efforts to rebuild the communities of Gates, Mill City and Detroit are underway with investment in necessary infrastructure including water, plumbing and electricity taking priority. But this area has historically relied on a recreation-tourism economy, and tourism industry partners are playing a large role in recovery efforts. “These are small communities that rely on people coming through, and even if it’s a stopover for a restaurant or a stopover to grab snacks on the way to hit the trails for the day, it’s so important that we have these conversations to make sure that tourism is sustainable, responsible and offering regenerative ways to work with the community,” says Dawnielle Tehama, executive director of the Willamette Valley Visitors Association.
Tehama notes that a careful balance needs to be struck between focusing energy into rebuilding critical infrastructure for the people who live in these communities while also rebuilding the tourism economy that these communities rely on so they can continue to welcome visitors when the time is right. “It was important for us at the regional-tourism level to be engaged with the community at the beginning of these conversations, because we want to be able to start ramping up tourism when the community is ready,” says Tehama.
And while the Santiam Canyon may not be ready to return to pre-fire visitation levels just yet, Tehama stresses the importance of the tourism industry remaining committed to these communities: “We got this a lot — especially early on — we got a lot of ‘This really isn’t a place for tourism to be.’ But part of what we do as an industry, and part of what we need to understand as a responsible industry, is that even though we promote and share the areas that we love and live in, telling people when it’s not OK to visit is also supporting those communities.”
As the communities in Santiam Canyon work to rebuild, there is an opportunity to enhance and diversify recreation opportunities. Tehama noted that the community hopes to invest in infrastructure that hasn’t existed before, including mountain biking and hiking trails, new campsites, paddling access, and equestrian use. Regardless of which recreation investments are made, it will be important to keep in mind that opportunities should both benefit visitors and enhance the quality of life for local residents.
As work begins to create new recreation access and restore existing infrastructure, close attention is being paid to the creation of better access roads that allow firefighters to get to wildfires faster. The Willamette Valley Visitors Association and other tourism organizations continue to coordinate with the U.S. Forest Service in order to ensure that recreation tourism returns safely and sustainably in a way that benefits the local communities.