AROUND OREGON: New push to draw tourism to ‘clean, safe’ Willamette River

People gathered on the gravel bar below Wallace Marine Park to cool off in the Willamette River on Thursday, July 30. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

While Heather King saw more water-goers flock to the Willamette River this summer than ever before due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the deputy director for the Willamette Riverkeeper nonprofit organization said the waterway can sometimes be an afterthought compared to other destinations the Mackenzie or John Day rivers.

“It is a beautiful river. It’s a river you can take overnight trips on and never see another boat on the river depending on the trip,” King said. “People just don’t think about it as a place to go.”

With the assistance of Travel Oregon, a collection of local organizations are hoping to change that. The Willamette Valley Visitors Association (WVVA), Willamette Riverkeeper, Mt. Hood Territory and other groups are part of a steering committee created to attract more visitors to the Willamette Water Trail (a water trail mostly along the Willamette that is recognized by the National Park Service) and foster economic development.

“I’d really love to be able to see the future vision where there are a variety of experiences for water enthusiasts, for people getting out and having their first paddle, to folks who want a multi-day experience on this nationally recognized river system on the Willamette — and that experience is tied to communities along the river. That’s where the measure of success comes,” said Samara Phelps, the executive director of Mount Hood Territory.

Tori Middelstadt, the WVVA development and industry relations manager, said perceptions that the Willamette is dirty might lead to reluctance to recreate on it. The river was polluted much more prolifically in the 20th century than it is now. The river received a B- report card from EcoHealth in terms of its healthiness, with the portion of the river near Wilsonville receiving a B.

“At least from Oregonians’ perspective, there’s a misnomer that the Willamette is dirty. The Willamette Riverkeeper has done a lot of environmental work. It’s clean, safe and recreational.” she said.

King also said many perceive the Willamette as a day trip option but not a place for multi-day travel.

“You can put a canoe and kayak in Eugene and paddle the river until the Columbia. (That’s) 187 miles. You can camp along it. It’s very user-friendly,” she said.

Some concepts these groups are working on include improving signage along the river, creating updated maps and providing information on rules, how to obtain a river access permit and historical context. They also plan to include destinations such as restaurants and hotels that can help river users plan their trips. This information will be available on the Willamette Water Trail website, https://willamettewatertrail.org/, and other community sites.

Eventually, they also hope to establish more non-motorized facilities and restrooms along the river, which Phelps said are needed. The WVVA noted that the Legislature and Oregon State Marine Board’s establishment of a water access permit program has created a funding stream for the development of more boat launches along the river.

“Water access sites have been designed with motorized recreation as the focus and that’s great. We have a need for infrastructure that’s focused on non-motorized as well,” Phelps said.

These groups were planning to host workshops in communities to gather input on how to better accentuate the river this year, but that initiative was put on hold due to the pandemic. They plan to hold the sessions next year, however.

As for what local communities can do to promote the river, steering committee members encouraged them to set up storage stations near their marinas or boat launch facilities so that people can get out of their watercraft and frequent local restaurants in town, particularly once the COVID-19 pandemic subsides.

The Wilsonville government had planned to forward a parks and recreation bond measure to voters that likely would have included the addition of a boat launch and storage facility at Boones Ferry Park and improved river access at Memorial Park, but the bond was shelved in the wake of the pandemic.

King mentioned Independence, Oregon as an example of a city that melds the river into its local economy. The city has a hotel along the river as well as campgrounds nearby. It also has separate areas for paddlers and motorized boats to enter the river, which Middelstadt said improves accessibility. She added that a uniform locker system for recreators to store their equipment along the river is a long-term goal.

Mark Ottenad, the city of Wilsonville public affairs director, said the lack of available waterfront property is a challenge in terms of fostering more connection points between the river and the community. The city also cut its tourism budget in half during the pandemic. However, he felt that the reopening of the Willamette Falls Locks, which has gained traction recently and could be approved next year, could open up the Wilsonville community to river users in Portland.

“The company that operated Portland Spirit indicates interest in bringing tours into wine country through the valley. Potentiality, should that occur, we could be able to tap into that,” Ottenad said.

At the same time, one of the Willamette Riverkeeper’s primary objectives is to preserve the natural habitat and environment along the river. King thinks that can be done alongside increased usage, but river-goers would need to be educated about cleaning up their own messes and being cognizant of the natural habitat around them.

This story is published with permission as part of a statewide collaboration of news organizations to share stories. Salem Reporter is part of the collaboration. 

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