Staff with the Haystack Rock Awareness Program know one side of Cannon Beach’s popular landmark is not like the other.
The tide pools that are open for the public to walk near and poke their fingers into have a wealth of creatures, but even more life abounds in the areas closed off to people, said Alan Quimby, an environmental interpreter for the outreach and educational organization, during a busy April morning at low tide.
That morning, he was splitting his time between pointing out puffins and reminding people to stay out of the protected marine garden around Haystack Rock. They kept coming anyway, seemingly deaf to the instructions Quimby gave prior groups and oblivious to signs that told them to stay out.
In Ecola State Park, visitors intent on getting down to beaches where no established access exists exacerbate erosion on coastal cliffs when they clamber down anyway. Park staff have started to add portable toilets where they’ve never had them before to curb the issue of human waste on increasingly popular hiking trails.
Tourism is a billion dollar industry in Oregon and millions of those dollars find a home at the coast. But as the number of visitors continues to grow, tourism leaders are rethinking their approach and the environmental impacts of hosting so many people.
Last week, the newly formed North Coast Tourism Management Network, which includes representatives from Clatsop and Tillamook counties, looked at three possible projects proposed for grant funding, all tied to environmental stewardship.
The ideas include:
• A transportation pilot program in Cannon Beach to encourage the use of public transportation and a push to provide information about local resources for bike rentals, local transit and walking maps.
• Trailhead and beach ambassadors at heavily trafficked outdoor sites like Ecola State Park, Cape Falcon, Rockaway Beach and Cape Kiwanda.
• And a communications strategy called “Care for Our Coast,” intended to provide information about the effect of tourism on natural resources and to educate visitors about ways they may need to adjust their behavior.
“It’s not about getting more visitors here,” said Nan Devlin, executive director of Visit Tillamook Coast. “It’s about managing them when they get here.”
The tourism network came out of a multiyear project led by Travel Oregon to look at how to make tourism more sustainable, environmentally and economically.
“The North Coast is clearly entering a new part of its destination ‘lifecycle,’” said Kristin Dahl, vice president of destination development for Travel Oregon, in a statement announcing the formation of the North Coast Tourism Management Network in May.
“Key to moving forward will be finding the right balance between the economic and social benefits of tourism and the impacts that high visitation can have on traffic, local services, natural resources and quality of life.”
Around the world, Devlin can point to examples of tourism gone awry, where crushes of visitors have had major impacts on the quality of life and fragile ecosystems.
As far as natural resources are concerned, the North Coast isn’t quite there yet, she said. “We’re nowhere near what is termed ‘overtourism,’ ... but we’re going to be if we don’t manage it and get a handle on it now.”
“We just want to get ahead of the game,” she added.
David Reid, the executive director of the Astoria-Warrenton Area Chamber of Commerce, sees the potential for more ecotourism-type activities: mountain biking, trail systems and river excursions. He views the rural tourism studios Travel Oregon hosted last year and the tourism management network as important tools to adjust tourism and make sure it is something that helps, rather than hinders, the coast.
It remains to be seen how the projects proposed by the tourism network’s committees progress and what kinds of impact they have on visitor awareness.
More and more waste
For now, Ben Cox, park manager of the Nehalem Bay Management Unit, which includes Ecola State Park, is taking steps to address the impacts in the parks he oversees, particularly the wads of used toilet paper and less savory human-generated discoveries rangers find along popular trails.
For state parks, one of the consequences of increased tourism is an uptick in the number of people who seem uninformed about how to be responsible in beautiful but potentially dangerous areas like coastal cliffs, or just how much of an influence their activities can have on plants, animals and landscapes.
Rangers are seeing more and more waste left behind, Cox said. Whether it’s dog waste, human waste or garbage, “in a lot of ways personal responsibility sort of flies out the window,” he said.
Cox plans to place one, possibly two, portable toilets at the South Neahkahnie Mountain trailhead. They already maintain these kinds of facilities at Saddle Mountain during the winter, when the flush toilets need to be shut down.
“We are recognizing, slowly, within the system, within the department, there is a need for more toilet facilities,” Cox said.
With more tourists comes a heavier demand on a park’s septic and water infrastructure. There’s also the plastic, paper and food waste that emerges from the bowels of cars and is carried in sacks or by the fistful to park trash cans. Managing all this comes at an extra cost. The added expense takes away from resource-protection or education projects rangers might otherwise tackle.
“The more people that visit, the harder it becomes,” Cox said. “More people are coming, but we don’t have more resources.”