Eco Zoned

 

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Green Springs Inn owner Diarmuid McGuire wants to build more cabins on his forest zoned property.

McGuire’s vision to allow small eco-resorts on protected land is one of several early-stage efforts that suggest a movement is afoot to relax Oregon’s famously strict land-use laws. Tension has always existed between environmentalists and pro-business interests in the state, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the tourism sector. As written, the 1973 law forbids small destination resorts on resource land and makes it difficult (but not impossible) for working farms to host overnight guests.

{pullquote}This legislation is what makes Oregon worth living in. But if you want to run a business on resource land, you have to deal with pretty strict rules.     {/pullquote}

But as more tourists visit the state to discover its untrammeled rural beauty — from horseback riding in wine country to agritourism in the Gorge — business owners like McGuire are eager to oblige. Farmers are opening farm stays that include breakfast, outfitters are taking cyclists and horseback riders on agritourism-themed excursions, and nonprofits are forging European-style networks of hiking trails that merge public land with private enterprise — all while having minimal impact on local environments. Oregon’s land use law 2.0 may be a boon not only for ecotourism operators but for the environment as well.

That’s what the visionaries behind “Gorge Towns to Trails” are hoping, anyway. Launched three years ago by the nonprofit Friends of the Columbia Gorge, Towns to Trails seeks to develop a 300-mile trail that wraps around the Gorge, linking small towns and communities with wineries, breweries and secluded natural areas. Project manager Renee Tkach says the idea is modeled on European hiking tours, which allow travelers to hike from winery to winery (or pub to pub), spending the night along the way — sometimes at a winery or farm — while an outfitter delivers your bags.

“This program would’ve been a crazy idea 28 years ago, because there wouldn’t have been any connections between the towns,” explains Tkach. But over the past 28 years, the U.S. Forest Service has snapped up more than 40,000 acres of land, protecting it from development but also making it easier to build trails between towns. Friends of the Columbia Gorge also has a land trust through which they’ve already purchased over 1,000 acres of land. (The Land Trust is actively working with area land owners who are interested in easements and may purchase more private land as it becomes available.)

Originally, Friends of the Columbia Gorge thought the trail would live only on public land. But Tkach says that Gorge-area businesses  — especially wineries and other agritourism ventures —have been so supportive of the concept of a European-style trail network that traverses both public and private land that the Land Trust may not need to purchase all the remaining private land.

“There’s a winery in Mosier called Analemma, and the owner, Kris Fade, was saying, ‘I want a trail that goes right through my vineyard, just like in Tuscany — private land but with a permit,’” recounts Tkach.

Though the entire 300-mile loop is a few decades off, certain segments are near completion. The Hood River to The Dalles corridor is 78% completed, says Tkach, and the Washougal to Stevenson section is 80% completed. When it’s finished, the Hood River-Dalles trail will be a three-to- five day experience with hikes of 10 to 12 miles a day. Tkach guesses that the entire 300-mile loop could be a two-week hiking trip.

Gorge Towns to Trail already offers “Trails to Ales” day hikes that end at a brewery and “wiking” trips that send hikers off with a wine tasting. But this spring, as a preview of future longer trips, they began offering overnights under the category of “Play & Stay.” In April they ran a “Blooms & Brews” trip that took guests on a private tour of gallery Lorang Fine Art in Cascade Locks, followed by dinner and pints at Thunder Island Brewing, an overnight at the Best Western and a morning hike at Dry Creek Falls. A few Gorge wineries may soon add yurts for farm stays, but for now, Airbnb seems to be filling in the lodging gaps, especially in towns like Mosier that don’t have hotels.


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