New at Oregon state parks: bungee and other adventures – Statesman Journal
If you’ve ever wanted to jump off a bridge and dive 250 feet into the Crooked River Gorge, the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department has good news.
In an effort to boost interest at some of its less busy state parks and make a little extra revenue, the agency has opened three sites to businesses that specialize in more adventurous styles of recreation for one-year pilot projects.
The most dramatic example started last weekend, when a Bend business started offering bungee jumps from Crooked River High Bridge at Peter Skene Ogden State Scenic Viewpoint.
“We get you harnessed up, have a briefing on safety, hook you up to the bungee, walk to the edge and then it’s 3 … 2 … 1 … BUNGEE!” said James Scott, owner of Central Oregon Bungee Adventures. “It’s one of the most amazing places to jump in the world. The canyon is incredibly beautiful. It’s 300 feet deep, and you’re free-falling 250 feet.”
Bungee jumping isn’t the only thing the parks department is taking for a test drive. Visitors to Sunset Beach State Recreation Site near Astoria can go paragliding high above the Oregon Coast. Those headed to Tou Velle State Recreation Site near Medford can take a jet-boat tour on the Rogue River.
The agency signed one-year contracts with each business, allowing it access to state park land. In return, the business pays the state 3 percent to 8 percent of its gross.
While the parks department has contracted with businesses before — equestrian tours on Oregon Coast beaches, for example — this is the first time it has done it on such a large, visible and potentially controversial scale.
“I think it’s fair to say that we’re stepping into new territory,” parks spokesman Chris Havel said. “This isn’t about fundamentally changing state parks, but we are trying some new things.”
Havel stressed that the deals are limited to one year. If the activities have a negative impact on the park’s ecology, visitors or neighbors, the parks department can terminate the deal.
“We’re calling it speed dating for recreation,” Havel said. “We tell the businesses up front what we’re looking for. We have no issues walking away if it’s not working. We’re giving it an honest test and seeing what happens.”
However, the parks department has been criticized not only for degrading the scenic and environmental quality of the parks in question but also for not getting public comment on projects in advance.
“I’ve always been a strong supporter of our state parks, but I think it’s reprehensible that they didn’t get any public input for what they’re doing to this wonderful little park,” said Jarold Ramsey, who lives north of Madras and opposes bungee jumping at Peter Skene Ogden. “This park is a place of tranquility and repose with a spectacular view. Having a big truck, canopy and crew doing bungee jumping right in the middle is a huge distraction and totally inappropriate.”
Driven by revenue
Good or bad, the decision to test new forms of recreation appears here to stay. It’s part of the overall game plan of parks director Lisa Sumption.
When Sumption took the reins of the parks department a year and a half ago, she spoke of small but substantial changes in the direction of the state parks system.
After a decade of using voter-approved lottery funds to expand — nine new parks from 2004 to 2014 — she said the agency would focus on improving the current system.
Driving that decision is economics. Stagnant revenue and rising costs created a $4 million budget shortfall at the beginning of the 2015-17 biennium. To avoid increasing fees or dipping into the general fund, Sumption said, they would need to connect with new users and create revenue.
“If we have a park that’s underutilized, we want to ask if there’s something different we can do that would create revenue,” said Sumption, formerly Lisa Van Laanen, in a previous interview with the Statesman Journal. “If you do the same thing you always did and your customer is evolving and changing and you’re not, that’s a problem, and that’s when revenue becomes an issue.”
The parks department has taken the idea of a vendor service at national parks — Xanterra runs boat tours at Crater Lake National Park, for example — and applied it on the state level.
“In the past, we just opened the door and let people play, and that works for most things,” Havel said. “But there are a lot of other things people want to do. Rather than try and learn how to do it ourselves, it’s easier and faster to bring in a private business.”
Havel said the parks department has long fielded proposals from private businesses interested in using parkland. The difference now is they’re more open to a one-year pilot project, provided the business has a solid, well-thought-out proposal.
From a business perspective
From 3,000 feet above the Oregon Coast, on the wings of a paraglider on a clear day, you can see Mount Hood, the Olympic Mountains and miles down the coast.
“It’s an incredible experience,” said Brad Hill, owner of Discover Paragliding. “Sometimes we fly inland, and sometimes we fly along the coast before landing at Sunset Beach. It brings in people from all over the country — Boston, St. Louis and Texas just recently.”
Hill said that he’s been operating the paragliding business at Sunset Beach since 2000 but that it has always been in nebulous legal territory. By signing a contract with the parks department, his legal status was secured and the state gets 8 percent of his gross.
“I always had a good relationship with state parks, but there were some legal issues that never really got sorted out,” Hill said. “Now, for the first time, I feel really comfortable about us being out here.”
In the Table Rock area of the Rogue River, Taylor Grimes has been running jet boat tours for the past four years.
He signed a contract with the parks department at the beginning of this summer to use Tou Velle as a place to start tours. The trip costs $45 for adults, and Grimes pays the state 3 percent of his gross.
“The tour focuses a lot on Native American history and early settler history in the area, combined with the jet boating experience on the Rogue River,” said Grimes, who owns Rogue Jet Boat Adventures. “Our model of education and discovery is almost identical to state parks’ mission statement. They took a lengthy look at my resume, business and the support we’d built in the community. It was a good fit.”
Not everyone agrees. The project has brought 43 public comments opposing the project, mostly from anglers and landowners concerned about wake, noise and damage to the environment.
“I believe that a jet boat of this type has no place on the upper Rogue,” wrote John Bjorkholm, of Medford, in public comments to the parks department. “Our salmon have enough problems to deal with as it is. Why create more difficulties by having a jet boat destroy their nesting places?”
Grimes said his boats don’t destroy salmon nesting sites or do ecological damage.
“I’d be the first person to back away if I felt we were having any impact,” Grimes said. “This is a multi-use river, and we go out of our way to be courteous. I feel that 5 percent of the river user group is creating a negative light.”
Each business, as long as they’re using state park land, is subject to the winds of public opinion.
After the year-long contract runs out, each will face the possibility of losing access. Each business owner expressed concern about that possibility.
“It would be a real bummer if we couldn’t operate. I’ve put a lot into this, and we’re working really hard to make a positive experience for everyone that comes to the park,” said Scott, of Central Oregon Bungee Adventures, who pays the state 5 percent of his gross. “But at the end of the day, I understand they have to do what’s best for state parks.”
Zach Urness has been an outdoors writer, photographer and videographer in Oregon for seven years. He is the author of the book “Hiking Southern Oregon” and can be reached at zurness@StatesmanJournal.com or (503) 399-6801. Find him on Facebook at Zach’s Oregon Outdoors or @ZachsORoutdoors on Twitter.
Give public comment
Do you have an opinion about the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department’s contracting with businesses to use public land for activities such as bungee jumping, paragliding and jet boating? Send public comments to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cost of adventures
Paragliding at Sunset Beach (Oregon Coast): $149 per person for tandem trips with an instructor
Bungee jumping at Peter Skene Ogden (Central Oregon): $100 for first jump, $50 for second
Jet boat tours from Tou Velle on Rogue River (Southern Oregon): $45 for adults, $35 for kids