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By Eric Mortenson, The Oregonian
People make more than 11 million recreational visits to the eight national forests within Oregon, sustain nearly 15,000 jobs and spend an estimated $440 million annually, according to a new U.S. Forest Service survey.
In addition to gauging recreation's economic impact, the survey results help the Forest Service set its management and budget priorities at national forests and grasslands across the county, Chief Tom Tidwell said last week.
For example, the survey shows hiking is the most common recreational activity in the national forests, Tidwell said. That supports the need to maintain and update trails, provide secure trailhead access and parking, and to link with volunteer groups that in many cases have adopted individual trail systems and help maintain them, he said.
The survey poses some puzzles for the Forest Service in Oregon and Washington, which make up the agency's Region 6. The region has 17 national forests, the Columbia River Gorge national scenic area, a national grassland and two volcanic monuments.
The duration of family camping trips has declined, while one-day visits are more common. Given that, it may make sense to convert little-used campgrounds to picnic areas, said Chuck Frayer, a recreation program planner at the Region 6 headquarters in Portland. Along the same line, the survey results may suggest that a packhorse trail should be converted to mountain bike use, he said.
Demographic data from the survey is instructive, Frayer said. The typical Oregon forest visitor is most likely a white, male, baby boomer on a day trip. In many of the forests, about two-thirds of visitors are male. But the gorge national scenic area, which stretches 85 miles east from Troutdale to The Dalles, is a striking exception: 48.5 percent of visitors are women.
"You set up at any of the (gorge) hiking trails, and what you see on any given day is a carload or two of a whole lot of gray-haired ladies," Frayer said.
The gorge trails and waterfalls are within easy car range of Portland, allowing many visitors to get in a quick hike and return home in time for dinner.
Other data is puzzling, Frayer said. The Latino population in Oregon has increased dramatically -- rising 63 percent in 10 years, according to the 2010 Census -- but there hasn't been a corresponding increase in Latino visitors to the forests. Latinos make up only 2.9 percent of visitors to the Mount Hood National Forest despite its proximity to Gresham and East Portland, which have heavily Latino neighborhoods.
"If the back door is to Mount Hood, and they're not going there -- the question is why," Frayer said.
The survey results can help forest managers react to the changing demographics, he said. "It's a sharp tool, it really is; a great tool for us to slice and dice the data."
Nationally, forests and grasslands host 170 million recreational visitors annually and sustain 223,000 jobs, according to the visitor use survey. The results come from interviews with 15,500 forest users collected from 2005 through 2010.
While the survey emphasizes the economic impact of recreation, forest service Chief Tidwell said commercial use of the national forests -- primarily logging -- is important as well. Thinning operations, for example, can reduce the threat of catastrophic fire that might burn through popular recreation sites.
"It takes a certain level of active management, and one of the benefits is to maintain these beautiful settings," he said.
America has 193 million acres of national forests and grasslands on which Americans can hike, float a river, camp, climb a mountain, ski or ride mountain bikes, horses or motorcycles, Tidwell noted. The health benefit of such activities is an important reason to "take advantage of these treasures we have in the national forest system," he said. "We provide it all."
The survey shows visitors enjoy what they see and think it's a bargain for the price. In Oregon's national forests, 54 percent of developed sites are free.
"When I see a 94 percent satisfaction rating on our facilities and services, it indicates we're doing a lot of things right," Tidwell said.