As summer ends and a devastating wildfire and drought season continues, it’s difficult not to worry about the impact of a changing climate on Oregon’s stunning landscapes. It’s a cliché to say that we’re lucky here, but it’s also the truth: we live in a state of extraordinary natural beauty and diversity. But as we all know, it’s a fragile beauty that has been altered and eroded over the years by human habits and economies, and is now being threatened by what a global majority of scientists declare to be anthropogenic (man-made) climactic shifts. In looking at the scorched homes and forests and rangelands, and at the pervasive drought that’s been declared across much of the state, a troublesome vision of the future emerges, one in which Oregon’s natural wonders–and the qualities that make this a comparatively pleasant, easy place to live–become increasingly vulnerable.
But while we’re worrying about the future, it’s worth remembering the impact of all of the people who have worked and are working–donating time and money, devoting their livelihoods–to preserve Oregon’s natural world and to ensure it remains iconic, beautiful, and authentic. There are conservationists, donors, and volunteers working worldwide to combat climate change and preserve ecosystems, but there are also thousands of northwesterners battling to sustain some of places that we Oregonians consider to be at the very heart of our self-definition.
Earlier this summer, Astoria’s Fort George brewery was crowded with local business owners and journalists eager to speak with U.S. Senator Ron Wyden about tourism’s impact on Oregon. Sen. Wyden’s visit was part of his week-long tour of the “7 Wonders of Oregon,” a collection of natural attractions compiled by a Travel Oregon campaign that has been so successful (and so beautifully-promoted by Wieden+Kennedy’s videos) that it’s been extended well beyond its originally planned duration.
The “7 Wonders” campaign has brought attention and tourist dollars to our state and has helped resuscitate rural areas jeopardized by the decline of natural resource economies. The record-breaking $10.3 billion that tourism generates for Oregon, and the over 101,000 jobs it has created, have been widely welcomed, especially in towns that once relied upon timber and other natural resource industries. But it’s not just statewide publicity efforts that have been responsible for tourism’s growth here; nor is it solely because of the majesty of our geography. Oregon’s success as a destination is in large part thanks to citizens across the state who have worked to preserve and improve the natural assets that are so inspiring to out-of-state visitors and residents alike.
Let’s take Oregon’s 7 Wonders. The Painted Hills, part of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, are sustained and conserved not only through National Parks’ system money, but also through the work of local nonprofits, such as the Oregon Paleo Lands Institute, and through the volunteerism upon which the cash-strapped National Parks system (and the similarly low-funded Oregon State Parks, for that matter) so heavily relies. If you went on a ranger tour, learned something from the library, visited Cant Ranch, bought something from the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center gift shop, or packed your kid off on a supervised “fossil” dig, the chances are very good that a dedicated volunteer provided that experience.
Smith Rock, another of the 7 Wonders, has less infrastructure: it’s more about getting out there and doing your own thing. But as almost 640,000 adventurers experience annually (the numbers have exploded in recent years, and there are worries about overcrowding), the visitors center yurt is staffed by folks who know everything about the geology, climbing routes, and hiking trails–they’re largely volunteers. So are the folks who annually pitch up for the Smith Rock Spring Thing, a gathering during which volunteers cleans up the park, maintain and develop its infrastructure, and ensure it’s a great spot for picnickers and sport-climbers alike. And of course the park itself wouldn’t be around if Harry and Diane Kem hadn’t donated their land to the State Parks system several decades ago, and if the members of the Oregon State Parks Foundation weren’t so enthusiastic about conserving and getting folks out into our state’s landscapes.
The Wallowas, that alpine wonderland in the northeast of Oregon, has its own champions. Wallowa Resources campaigns for environmental and economic sustainability to go hand-in-hand, and has helped strengthen both of those things. Wallowa Land Trust works to conserve both the working and the wildlands of the area, while arts and cultural organizations like the Josephy Center, Fishtrap, and the Nez Perce Interpretive Center, keep the community alive and dynamic to residents and tourists alike. And while all of these organizations are powered by individuals, everyday people have taken conservation into their own hands, too: take rancher Doug McDaniel, who undertook a riparian restoration project to redirect the part of the Wallowa River–which had been straightened many decades ago–that flowed through his lands back into its meandering original course, restoring fish habitat and native vegetation along the way.
Mt. Hood benefits from the Mt. Hood Stewardship Council’s efforts to preserve and restore its forests, rivers, and alpine environments; from the Pacific Crest Trail Association, which protects and maintains the entire length of the trail via donors and volunteer labor; the Mazamas mountaineering club, which not only teaches people to have an appreciation for outdoor activities but also lead trail maintenance and restoration expeditions; and cultural institutions like the Mt. Hood Cultural Center and Museum and Friends of Timberline, which preserves the historical integrity of one of the most awesome mountain lodges in the country. (More info on volunteer opportunities for Mt. Hood here.)
And the remaining three Wonders–the Coast, Crater Lake, and the Columbia River Gorge–all have their advocates and supporters. The volunteers (over 7000 of them) and staff of SOLVE have been cleaning the entire 363.1 miles of the Oregon coast twice a year since 1984, and plant trees and restore rivers and other habitat when they’re not trawling the sand. The Crater Lake Institute provides resources for those seeking to learn more about the geology, ecology, and human history of the deepest lake in America, while the Crater Lake Trust works to protect, promote, and enhance Crater Lake National Park. And the jaw-dropping National Scenic Area the Columbia River Gorge not only has Friends of the Columbia Gorge to ensure it preserves and grows its scenic status, but also organizations like the Confluence Project, a multi-site art, conservation, and heritage project that reflects the human and natural history of this stunning river system in order to inform its future.
Ultimately, these places are what makes Oregon Oregon, and their enduring appeal is at least in part owed to the actions of people who have seen their value and fought to preserve and sustain them. People plant trees, clean beaches, donate land, and conserve heritages, and all of their work helps to make Oregon’s amazing places more resilient and more remarkable. In coming decades, this resilience will be tested. But it’s heartening to know how many people are already working behind the scenes to keep Oregon full of wonders.
“Heroes are not giant statues framed against a red sky. They are people who say: This is my community, and it is my responsibility to make it better.”
–Tom McCall, interviewed by Studs Terkel