Memorial Day Weekend for many marks the start of summer. For me, it also marks the start of my tenure here at Friends of the Columbia Gorge, roughly three summers ago.
This year, the end of May for many parts of Oregon and Washington has marked a relaxation of coronavirus stay-at-home safety orders issued by Govs. Brown and Inslee. And many are looking forward to the opportunity to walk, hike, and bike on their favorite trails in the Columbia Gorge, which was shuttered earlier this spring in a historic safety measure. The months ahead, however, will still have many uncertainties and we wanted to send a quick update on our plans for Friends' Guided Hikes and Outdoor Programs this summer.
While many parts of the U.S. are looking to reopen many health officials believe that overall coronavirus exposure levels in Oregon and Washington are still low and are uncertain what levels of immunity any might have. As a result, they are urging people to observe caution when recreating outside—including staying local, avoiding crowded areas, limiting activities to groups within family or household groups, and maintaining at least six feet physical distance from others.
At the same time, the U.S. Forest Service and other land managers in the Columbia River National Scenic Area are re-examining previous guidelines for hikes and outings. Many Gorge communities also are nervous about the health and safety risks hikers could bring. In sum, there are still numerous significant safety, management, and community challenges that will take time to resolve.
We are committed to operating our guided hikes in a way that puts safety first. That means making sure we have the safety protocols developed to keep hiker leaders, shepherds, hike attendees, and others on the trails all as safe as possible. And in light of the ongoing safety challenges posed by the coronavirus crisis we've decided that canceling our summer hikes is the responsible thing to do.
This wasn't an easy or quick decision. We also know that other groups might reach a different verdict but we feel this is the right choice for Friends. Over the past couple of weeks, we've had a number of conversations both internally with staff as well as with partner groups, land managers, and Gorge residents.
We also recently surveyed Friends hike leaders and shepherds to hear directly their interest and concerns on leading hikes. We've listened to all of that input and it was clear that we wouldn't be able to organize hikes this summer at the level of precaution and safety we strive for to ensure our volunteers and those they are entrusted with are safe.
Many in Gorge communities are also, understandably, concerned about the potential risks an influx of hikers could bring. And with the pent up demand for Gorge recreation land managers will have their hands full managing facilities and protecting the lands from harm.
As Friends is committed to ensure the Gorge and its communities are both treated with respect, we feel it wouldn't be responsible add more pressures on Gorge land managers and communities by leading our normal summer guided hikes. Also, by suspending summer hikes we can focus instead on making the changes necessary to relaunch hikes that are responsible and safe in the fall, as conditions with the coronavirus crisis permit. It also will allow us to explore alternative outdoor programs ideas that are easily compatible with restrictions on group sizes and safety measures that will continue to be part of daily life in the months ahead.
One the high points and one of things I've found that truly sets Friends apart is the commitment and passions of its volunteers. And while we all will need to be flexible in the months ahead we wanted to make sure that you know our commitment to safety—for our staff, members, volunteers, and the communities we work with in the Gorge counties—will continue to be foremost in how we make decisions with our outdoor programs and other public engagement activities.