The Climate CIRCulator is a monthly newsletter covering climate science and the Northwest written by scientists and communicators.

This Is How Drought Affects Oregon’s Outdoor Recreation Industry

  • Jun 24, 2016

By Emily Wisler

This past winter, a few places in the Northwest (notably Seattle and Portland) had their wettest winter on record, so it’s easy to forget our region was in a severe drought at this time last year. Much of that drought has since significantly diminished, but not before it left its mark on one of Oregon’s most important industries: recreation.

In Oregon, outdoor recreation accounts for some 141,000 jobs, producing $955 million in tax revenue each year, according to the 2012 “Outdoor Recreation Economy Report.” Because so much of this recreation, from skiing and snowboarding to boating and rafting, depends on water, severe droughts are expected to hit Oregon’s recreation industry hard.

Detroit Lake

Detroit Lake had extremely low water levels in August 2015.


Starting in 2013, as the historic drought crept its way north from California, we got a glimpse of what this will look like: reduced snowpack in the mountains limited snow-based recreation, low water levels restricted boating and water sports, ecosystem stress led to rough hunting and fishing seasons and major wildfires limited public access to popular recreation areas.

The snowy peaks of Oregon’s mountains host popular recreation areas. Mt. Hood, Mt. Bachelor and Mt. Ashland attract skiers, snowboarders, and snowmobilers, but last year reduced snowpack caused by drought conditions notably limited these activities. Historically, Mt. Hood’s Timberline Ski Area has remained open throughout the summer, but in late July of 2015, the Timberline Lodge announced that August 2 would be the last day of the ski year, the earliest shutdown in over 35 years, according to High Country News.

In 2014, the Mt. Ashland Ski Area in southern Oregon decided not to open at all because the mountain base had less than a foot of snow. Mt. Ashland ski area brings in roughly $11.5 million for the regional economy according to the ski area’s own numbers; money that flows from the powdered slopes to local hotels and restaurants.

Communities whose recreation-based economies rely on the melting snow were also hurt by the drought. Last summer, Detroit Lake in the Willamette National Forest became the poster child for Oregon’s drought-induced reservoir depletion. Detroit Lake’s low water level and unusable boat ramps led to a 26 percent decrease in visitation, or a loss of 20,000 overnight visits, according to the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department. And Detroit Lake wasn’t alone.

Throughout Oregon multiple reservoirs and rivers became so low that boating access was physically restricted. A notable measure of this low water showed up as kayaking days. Last year saw the fewest viable days for safe kayaking and rafting according to High Country News. Along with low water levels, fire was also a major issue for many areas.

Last summer, tourists hoping to hike or camp were left disappointed by land closures and significant wildfire risk. Closures included the southern side of Mt. Adams, areas of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest and areas near Crater Lake National Park and Diamond Lake in central Oregon. The extensive wildfires also posed a risk to human health and enjoyment, leading the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality to issue smoke reports throughout the late summer months. Not surprisingly, many Oregon recreation areas banned fires, forcing campers to say goodbye to s’mores. However, there was a flip side to the warm, dry weather.

Mt Hood

Mt. Hood reflected in Trillium Lake in October 2015.


The Statesman Journal reported a significant boost in tourism between the 2014 and 2015 summer seasons, writing that the longer season of warmer weather was partially to thank. At 171 state parks, day-use spiked by 9.3 percent, the largest single-year increase in two decades, according to the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department. Crater Lake, John Day Fossil Beds, Oregon Caves National Monument, and Smith Rock State Park each saw an attendance increase of about 10 percent, and some of Oregon’s national forests also estimated huge increases. Popular resorts and recreation areas in the central and coastal areas of Oregon saw the biggest boosts in attendance, with estimated increases of over 10 percent.

The only negative trends observed between the 2014 and 2015 summer seasons were from reservoir recreation, according to the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department. However, this net spike in tourism and recreation may only be temporary, as climate change may gradually lower the overall quality and attractiveness of Oregon’s parks and forests, potentially reducing attendance in the long run, according to the Western Water Assessment 2012 Annual Report, a climate assessment written by the Western Water Assessment group, a Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessments team similar to CIRC.

So, what does this mean for the future of Oregon’s recreation industry? If the last several years are any measure, skiing, rafting and fishing industries could struggle in drought conditions, while other recreational activities could actually attract more tourists because of the appealing, vacation-worthy weather. Does this mean outdoorsy types will exchange snowy slopes for scenic trails or substitute kayaking for camping? What is clear is that Oregonians should prepare for a change in the types of outdoor recreation available throughout the state. Just don’t exchange those ski boots for hiking boots just yet, this winter’s record-breaking precipitation led to phenomenal powder on the slopes.