This is a two-part article that takes its name from Donald Shoup’s ground-breaking book “The High Cost of Free Parking”, first published in 2005. Shoup documents the many unintended effects of free parking in cities, and many of the principles could apply to our public lands, as well.
The first part of this series examines the parking crisis facing the trailheads of the Columbia River Gorge and Mount Hood, while the second part will explore some possible solutions — none of them easy to realize until the true costs of free parking are confronted.
The Forest Service announced plans this month to redesign the huge parking area at the Dog Mountain trailhead, on the Washington side of the Columbia River Gorge, to address safety issues. The Forest Service plans to stripe the currently unmanaged, free-for-all paved shoulder with designed parking spaces for 75 cars. This is a significant reduction from the roughly 200 cars that pack into the trailhead on busy spring weekends.
To compensate for the reduced parking, the Forest Service is teaming up with Skamania County’s Gorge West End Transit (WET) bus to provide a shuttle from Stevenson to Dog Mountain. The shuttle will run Saturdays and Sundays from April 16 to June 12, the peak season for the hike when the wildflower meadows that make the hike famous are at their peak. The shuttles will run 10 times daily from 10:15 a.m. to 4 p.m., and the one-way fare will be a modest $1.00.
The predictable headline in The Oregonian story covering of the announcement screamed “Already hate parking at Dog Mountain? It’s about to get worse”, and the reaction from hikers in social media has pretty much echoed that simplistic, knee-jerk reaction.
But will it really be worse? Seventy-five cars at the redesigned trailhead still translates into roughly 150 people on the trail at any given time — hardly a wilderness experience, and a huge improvement over the 400+ hikers you might currently expect along the 7-mile circuit to the summit from trailhead parking capacity, alone. Some hikers will use the shuttles, but more likely, people will simply go elsewhere — a point I’ll cover in the second part in this series.
Hikers are usually people who love nature, so it’s fair to assume that few hikers would want to see their public lands trampled by unmanaged mobs. And yet, much of the reaction to limiting the number of cars that can park at Dog Mountain has been just the opposite — anger and outrage at any sort of limit on parking or access.
So, why this disconnect? We’ll explore that question in the second part of the series, too, as well as the necessary solutions to overwhelming demand for trails in the Gorge and on Mount Hood in the second part of this series.
First, a closer look at the problems that exist in today’s status quo.
A Typical Weekend…
It’s not news to Gorge regulars that weekends along the Historic Columbia River Highway in “Waterfall Alley” have become outlandish traffic jams, with cars parked anywhere they will fit, and trails literally overrun with thousands of hikers. Local photographer T.J. Thorne filmed a clip in the vicinity of Oneonta Gorge that gives a flavor of what our precious Gorge experience has devolved:
This isn’t fun for anyone. It’s a tragedy of the commons in the making, and tarnishes what could (and should) be a wonderful outdoor experience for people looking for some relief from their daily, urban routines.
How did it get this bad? Rapid growth in the Portland metropolitan is part of the answer: while the Gorge trail system is only slightly larger than it was in 1940, the Portland-Vancouver region has exploded from just over 500,000 residents then to more than 2 million today. Compounding the growth is Portland’s emerging lifestyle economy, whereby new industries locating here are increasingly do so because their workers want easy access to our amazing outdoors.
So, one answer is more trails — something I promote regularly in this blog, and something that can be done responsibly and in a way that greatly expands opportunities for people to have a positive outdoor experience. But getting there will take major reforms in how the Forest Service and Columbia Gorge Commission, in particular, think about recreation (both are surprisingly hostile to new trails) as well as restoring funds to gutted federal trail budgets.
The federal budget problem is real: consider that Forest Service crews in the Gorge are now about one-fourth the size they were as recently as 1990, and the scope of the trail funding crisis is clear enough. Without volunteers from organizations like Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO), Washington Trails Association, Friends of the Gorge and the Pacific Crest Trail Association our trails would literally be falling apart and impassable from fallen trees and slides. Mount Hood faces a similar backlog and dependence on volunteers to simply keep the trails open.
Not Playing Well Together?
A good share of the overcrowding and also comes from a failure of public land agencies to work together on common solutions. This is especially true in the Gorge, but also on Mount Hood, where the key players are the U.S. Forest Service, Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT), Oregon Parks and Recreation Department (OPRD) and the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) .
Consider the trailhead parking policy along on the Oregon side of the Gorge: parking at Latourell Falls, Shepperd’s Dell, Wahkeena Falls, Multnomah Falls, Oneonta Gorge, Horsetail Falls, Elowah Falls, Starvation Creek and Mitchell Point is free, no permit required.
Meanwhile, parking at Wahclella Falls, Bridge of the Gods, Eagle Creek, Wyeth and Herman Creek requires a Northwest Forest Pass ($30 annual pass or $5 day pass). This can’t be explained simply by state vs. federal management differences, as the Forest Service operates several of the trailheads where free parking is provided, and the state operates both free and fee-based sites, with State Parks at Rooster Rock, Benson Lake and Viento requiring a $5.00 day-use free.
On the Washington side, trailheads provided by the DNR at places like Beacon Rock and Hamilton Mountain require a special DNR permit ($30 annual pass or $10 day pass), while Forest Service trailheads like Dog Mountain require a Northwest Forest Pass.
It gets worse: on Mount Hood, the Forest Service is well down the troubling path of commercializing both campgrounds and trailheads to “concessionaires”, who in turn, get to set their own fees for day use, which includes parking at trailheads. Several of these trailheads are also posted with a Northwest Forest Pass requirement, so it’s unclear if paying one is the same as paying the other, or even whether being ticketed by a “concessionaire” has any legal standing.
Meanwhile, show up at the same trailhead on Mount Hood between November and April, and it might be a Snow Park site, which has its own permit, operated by the Oregon Department of Transportation ($25 annual or $4 day). Just to make things interesting, “agents” who sell Snow Park permits can charge an additional service fee — something you learn when you stop by one of the grocery stores or service stations that offer these permits.
This amazing cocktail of free and permit parking is a major point of annoyance to hikers, both for the inherent confusion and the actual cost of buying multiple passes to use trails in the same area. That’s bad public relations for the land agencies and bad news for the public. But the tangle of policies and permits is especially bad for tourism, with visitors unfamiliar with the area forced to decipher these overlapping regulations.
Dumb Fees vs. Smart Fees
As frustrating as this crazy quilt of fees (or lack of fees) is for the public, the effect is worse when you consider that most of the permitting program do little to actually manage crowding and protect trails from overuse. Why? Because they are all flat fees that don’t recognize that demand for recreation fluctuates wildly by season and day of week on both Mount Hood and in the Gorge.
In The High Cost of Free Parking, Donald Shoup describes how building enough free parking to meet narrow peaks in demand results in oversized, mostly empty parking lots while promoting even worse crowding during peak periods. And yet, there are fairly straightforward tools for managing parking to avoid these effects on our cities.
Much of what Shoup proposes for cities could be adapted for trails and other activities on our public lands, and that will be the focus of the second part of this series: a set of specific actions that could not only make the outdoor experience for everyone better, but also protect the scenery and trails that we go to the outdoors to experience, and ensure that is will still be here for future generations to enjoy.
To be continued…