For the fourth year in a row, Oregon’s state park system attracted a record number of visitors.
Officials estimated there were 51.7 million visits to the state's parks, historic sites, waysides and natural areas in 2016.
An additional 2.7 million camper nights were recorded at the 57 sites where people can camp.
Both numbers are records, Oregon Parks and Recreation Department spokesman Chris Havel said.
“The upside is that we’re serving more people than ever before — and seeing more smiles than ever before,” Havel said in an interview earlier this year. “At the same time, we’re having problems keeping up with crowding, trash, and the wear and tear on parks.”
Oregon’s state park system has broken its own record every year since 2013. The previous record for day use visits was 48.4 million, recorded in 2015.
In terms of percentages, the biggest jumps have been in the Columbia River Gorge and Central Oregon areas, Havel said. However, the largest raw numbers come from the Oregon Coast, where visits increased to 28.6 million, up from 21.4 million in 2011.
One possible reason for the increase is weather. Spring of 2015 and ’16 brought some of the warmest in state history, leading to 20 percent increases in visitation during April.
OPRD is taking steps to address the increase at parks facing the biggest issues.
At Smith Rock State Park, where visitation jumped from 401,212 in 2009 to 744,380 in 2016, officials are revising the park’s master plan with a focus on how to deal with the new visitors. They’re considering everything from expanding the parking lot to instituting a limited entry system that would cap the number of people allowed to visit.
“Everything is on the table right now,” park manager Scott Brown said in an interview earlier this year. “On busy weekends, we have parking overflowing into our neighbor’s yards, extremely long lines at restrooms and an overflowing septic system, and a lot of issues with our first-come, first-served campground.”
The increasing crowds also factor into OPRD’s budget. Havel said a priority for the department is rebuilding its field staff — hiring more park rangers.
“People may be under the impression parks don’t take much work to operate,” Havel said. “(But) keeping it clean, maintaining facilities and helping people directly and through programs takes a well-trained team.”
Zach Urness has been an outdoors writer, photographer and videographer in Oregon for eight years. He is the author of the book “Hiking Southern Oregon” and can be reached at zurness@StatesmanJournal.com or (503) 399-6801. Find him on Twitter at @ZachsORoutdoors.
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