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Southern Oregon outfitters bend Wyden's ear about red tape

Crater Lake National Park was stop No. 1 on Sen. Ron Wyden’s weeklong tour of the Seven Wonders of Oregon, but the No. 1 topic in discussions with recreational business owners turned to government inaction and red tape.

During an hour-plus session at the park, Oregon’s senior U.S. senator heard outfitters express frustration with mandated permitting processes, heard reports that land management agencies are not maintaining many popular hiking trails, heard a plea asking that Crater Lake’s access roads be opened sooner and stay open longer, and expressed surprise that it has taken Roe Outfitters of Klamath Falls 3½ years to navigate the permitting process for a soon-to-open zip line.

“You can believe I will be on the phone,” Wyden said after hearing Jenifer Roe explain the process. “It’s just eye-opening. … Maybe this is time to deliver a wake-up call.”

Roe, who was not critical of Fremont-Winema National Forest officials, said the permitting process with the National Park Service to offer guided fishing trips and hikes, which will begin this summer, “worked like clockwork.”

Wyden expressed support for Karen and Fred Wickman, owners of the Prospect Historic Hotel, who said they lose business because would-be visitors believe the park is closed in the winter. They also asked whether park roads could open sooner and close later.

“That’s a very appealing idea,” Wyden said. “I’m really interested in that. It’s practical.”

Most years the park’s north entrance doesn’t open until about Memorial Day and it closes after the first winter snows, often in October. The ongoing drought has allowed park roads to be cleared of snow earlier than usual — this year the park received 298 inches of snow, well below its winter season average of 523 inches — but an earlier opening is often complicated because of heavy snow and a lack of seasonal staff.

Some people, including owners of the Union Creek Resort, located just outside the park’s west boundary, said the lack of trail-clearing crews have made access to popular trails difficult to impossible.

Others echoed those sentiments. Brad Niva of Merlin-based Rogue Wilderness Adventures, which offers hiking and combination rafting-hiking trips along the Wild and Scenic Rogue River, said he has paid his own staff to clear trails.

Like Roe, Niva and Robert Hamlyn of Hellgate Jetboat Excursions expressed frustration with the permitting process. Niva said one agency is requiring him to provide a form of insurance that is not available, and said the turnover in agency personnel also causes delays.

“It’s like a revolving door,” Niva said. “The permit system gets bogged down.”

Hamlyn echoed Niva’s frustrations, calling the process increasingly burdensome. Because they fear being accountable for applying rules and regulations, Hamlyn said, “I think it’s difficult for government employees to apply any common sense.”

Wyden promised to set up meetings with the Army Corps of Engineers, Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and other federal agencies and people involved in recreational businesses to discuss issues and work toward solving concerns.

Following the Crater Lake meeting, Wyden is continuing his Seven Wonders of Oregon tour. Along with Crater Lake, the state’s other wonders include the Oregon Coast, Smith Rock, Mount Hood, the Painted Hills, the Wallowas and the Columbia Gorge.

The Seven Wonders designation, created by Travel Oregon, is credited with helping to make 2014 a record-breaking year for tourism’s economic impact and job numbers in Oregon.

Todd Davidson, Travel Oregon CEO who attended Tuesday’s Crater Lake session, said travel and tourism in Oregon generates $10.3 billion for the state’s economy and directly employs more than 101,000 Oregonians.

Lee Juillerat is regional editor for the Herald and News.