'Ecotourism' - a gold mine for ailing agencies?

  • An ecotourist cradles a rock art reproduction

    Thomas Boyd photo
  • Forest Service archaeologist leads a lesson outdoors

    Thomas Boyd photo
 

STEAMBOAT, Ore. - They huddled under the massive rock overhang, sheltered from the rain, trying to imagine the Native American shaman who painted these pictographs 150 years ago.

On the rock's belly are drawings of riders on horseback and strange ghostlike people. Some are clearly visible, but many are not, due to years of vandalism and a lichen that has spread across the rock's face.

"Here's the tracks coming across," says archaeologist Jim Keyser, pointing to a spot on the rock. "See that? That's the horse. There's two legs of it, right there."

Each of the eight people straining to see have paid $1,400 for food and lodging to be here, in the middle of an old-growth forest along a tributary of the North Umpqua River aptly named Medicine Creek. Later, wet and tired, they clambered into a van at dusk for the ride back to the renowned Steamboat Inn, where they ate a hearty meal, sipped Oregon wines, then relaxed in the cozy library before toddling off to bed.

The week-long excursion is an example of a growing trend in ecotourism: expeditions that explore nature, archaeology and natural history with the help of expert guides. It's the fastest-growing segment of the tourism industry. Private excursion companies and nonprofit groups such as the Smithsonian Institution have found that people will pay thousands of dollars to go bird-watching in Costa Rica, follow researchers to Antarctica or dig for prehistoric artifacts in Africa and Asia.

Now, federal land management agencies are getting into the game. Last week's "Ancient Painters of the North Umpqua" tour was run by the U.S. Forest Service. It was one of several "Heritage Expeditions' the agency has planned for Oregon, Washington, Montana, Arizona, California and other states as a part of the user-fee demonstration program. The program is a three-year experiment that allows federal agencies to charge recreationists for their use of public lands (HCN, 10/13/97).

For the Forest Service, hard hit by budget cuts and plummeting timber revenues, the Heritage Expeditions are promising because most of the income stays on the ground. But hiking, outdoor and environmental groups, which have protested that the public shouldn't be charged to use public lands, say the programs raise questions about how much the Forest Service should dabble in for-profit enterprises.

But Keyser, chief archaeologist for the Forest Service's Northwest region, insists that the natural history tours are a "completely different animal. It's different than a trailhead where you pay $3. It's got ecotourism, volunteerism and education all wrapped up into one package."

Participants in the Umpqua tour not only got a week of educational seminars and access to the agency's natural resource experts; they also volunteered to work on various projects, from writing a rock art brochure to doing the grunt work on some archaeological digs and helping to restore historic sites that have been vandalized.

"It's great to get out and shake some dirt around," said George Hoyt, as he searched for artifacts in soil dug from a small plot near the Medicine Creek rock art site. Hoyt, a retired newspaper and magazine publisher from Sandy, Ore., said he and his wife, Colleen, have a long-standing interest in Native American art.

Nearly all of the $3,000 profit after expenses from this trip will go back into protecting and enhancing archaeological sites in the Umpqua National Forest.

"Everybody wins," Keyser said.

But he acknowledged that many of the pilot programs have been controversial. Even some Forest Service employees question whether a federal agency should be in the excursion business, possibly competing with private enterprise.

Sharon Van Loan, who owns the Steamboat Inn with her husband, Jim, thinks the agency is on the right track. "The Forest Service has the experts; they have the resource. They might as well share it," she said. "Besides, who else is doing this? No one I know of."

Andy Stahl, head of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, a Eugene-based group of agency workers and retirees, said the whole point of the three-year demonstration program is to test new ideas. "Congress gave the Forest Service a blank check to experiment," Stahl said. "The only way you find out whether you've crossed the line is you cross it a few times. When the experiment's done, then you decide which ideas you want to keep and which ones you want to put to bed."

As far as participants in the rock art expedition are concerned, it's already a success. "I'd like to see the Forest Service expand it," said George Hoyt. "I think there are plenty of people who are affluent enough to do it and plenty of people interested enough to do it."

The Forest Service already is looking at organizing several more expeditions next year, including a week on Chinese mining history in the Siskiyou Mountains, more rock art expeditions and a trip following the canoe route of an early trapper.

"I don't think, by any means, that we've tapped the true potential of the Heritage Expedition program," Keyser says.

Lance Robertson is an environmental reporter with the Eugene, Ore.-based Register Guard.

Note: in the print edition of this issue, this article appears with a sidebar, "Some tourists opt for a dose of reality."

You can contact ...

* Jim Keyser, in Portland, Ore., at 503/808-2644, for information on Heritage Expeditions in any Western state.

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