Part of what Katherine Lee loves about Moscow, Idaho, where she lives, are the trails 10 minutes away. She visits with family or friends several days a week to hike or mountain bike, or to have walking meetings with colleagues.
But the trails have been closed for weeks this summer, to mitigate risk as wildfires burn across the Pacific Northwest.
“Climate change has been slowly realizing itself, but this year, a lot of us have been saying ‘Climate change is here,’” said Dr. Lee, whose work as an assistant professor at the University of Idaho’s Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology considers how to use natural resources more sustainably.
Across the American West, fires have become bigger and more frequent over the last few years, threatening the lives and livelihoods of the people who live there, and disrupting the plans of many visitors who flock to the region for its outdoor fun, stellar views and clear waters.
In Methow Valley, Wash., the four-season Sun Mountain Lodge resort evacuated guests on July 22 because of increasing concern over wildfires. It was a hit for a tourism-reliant community still reeling from effects of the pandemic.
“It was pretty devastating for us to watch this amazing business as a result from the recovery from Covid, and just have the fires shut everything down,” said Eric Christenson, the resort’s director of sales and marketing.
The fires this summer have also disrupted the use of public lands, streams and recreational areas. The Washington State Department of Natural Resources in July closed most of the land it manages, including conservation areas, community forests, trails and campgrounds. In Montana, some fishing streams have closed and restrictions have been placed on the activity because of the extreme heat. The Dixie fire in California is the largest in the U.S. this year, burning through hundreds of thousands of acres and leveling the town of Greenville in Northern California this week.
Even Hawaii is battling a wildfire surge. A brush fire on the Big Island burned more than 40,000 acres over the weekend and prompted mandatory evacuations.
“It used to be that every once in a while those things would happen,” said Anne Hedges, the director of policy and legislative affairs at the Montana Environmental Information Center. “Now it feels like it’s every year or two. At some point, you’re going to have people just choose to go someplace else.”
Important local industry
Outdoor recreation is a major part of the American West’s economy and the central draw for visitors. In 2018, the Outdoor Industry Association estimated that the sector generated $51 billion in consumer spending each year and provided around 451,000 jobs in the Pacific Northwest.
Kristina Dahl, a California-based climate scientist who is part of the Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy group focused on sustainability in the future, said that travelers may need to start considering fire season when planning their travel, as they would hurricane season in the Caribbean.
In Southern Oregon, where the Bootleg Fire has burned more than 400,000 acres, the impacts of climate change are “pervasive,” said Erica Fleishman, the director of Climate Impacts Research Consortium and a professor at Oregon State University. It’s affected “basically any element of the recreational sector — people going river rafting or canoeing or fishing.”
“It feels more like a matter of ‘when’ it is going to hit a particular sector heavily, as opposed to ‘if’ it’s going to hit a particular sector,” she added.
The impact of the current fires is uneven across the Western states. Tourism boards have tried to communicate this to potential visitors who may be deterred by news reports.
Allison Keeney, a spokeswoman for Travel Oregon, the state’s tourism commission, said that “wildfires in one location often have no impact outside a limited area and rarely cause major travel disruptions. This is the case with the fires happening right now, which are located in remote wildland areas.” She added that the state has implemented tools visitors can use to track air quality before or during their stay.
In Washington, the scenic Walla Walla Valley “has seen very minimal, if any, tourism impact from smoke related to fires,” said Justin Yax, a spokesman for the area’s tourism board.
“If anything, the Walla Walla Valley has seen an uptick in visitation in recent years when other popular wine regions were dealing with the effects of wildfires and smoke,” he said, referring to California’s Sonoma, Napa and Santa Barbara counties, which in recent years have been hit hard by fire.
But in the Methow Valley, which is also a tourism reliant region, two nearby fires have prompted an evacuation in several towns. The mayor of Winthrop, Wash., called the fires “a season-ending event for tourism” at a community meeting in July.
After Sun Mountain Lodge evacuated its current guests, the resort called those with upcoming reservations to encourage them to rebook for later in the year and blacked out availability online through Aug. 31. The resort is temporarily closed.
In Montana, Maria Caputo, the manager of Lamplighter Cabin & Suites in the state’s capital of Helena, said that she’s had numerous guests call to cancel their reservations this month because of the smoke.
“We’re honest with them,” Ms. Caputo said. “I don’t want people to come here and have unhealthy situations for their breathing or anything.”
Ms. Caputo added that the people who do make it are surprised by the situation: The smoke is keeping most people indoors, and nearby mountains are no longer visible. “I don’t think that they’re realizing how serious the fires are and how smoky it is until they get here or are flying in,” said Ms. Caputo.
Some tourism officials say that visitors are undeterred by the fires. Jeremy Sage, who leads the University of Montana’s Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research, said that visitors are “resilient,” and have simply altered their plans according to air quality and smoke conditions. He adds that it’s also a matter of educating tourists about the vastness of the state and the other places in Montana they can visit.
Urban and rural effects
The fires, smoke and extreme temperatures can also extend beyond the wilderness, Dr. Dahl, the climate scientist, said. The heat could affect places like Disneyland, she said, which “draws a huge number of tourists every year and is excruciatingly hot.” And a trip to enjoy the view from the Golden Gate Bridge can be ruined by smoke conditions.
Dr. Dahl added that, in part, the public needs to change its conception of what it means to vacation outdoors or what the outdoors should look like. California’s thick forests, for instance, are a result of decades of fire suppression.
“We have built right up to the edge of the national forests,” she said, which makes things like campfires, which are quintessential to the camping experience, increasingly risky.
Dr. Fleishman, in Oregon, agrees. Because people have expanded to areas that are less urban, there’s a higher chance that humans will create fire-starting sparks, “because that’s just something that people and human infrastructure do,” she said.
Amy Snover, the director of the Climate Impacts Group at the University of Washington, said that we’re currently walking a path that threatens the natural environment. “That’s a path we have a choice to get off of, because our future isn’t written yet,” she said.
When it comes to nature and natural resources, she added that people should “think about how much you love it and think about what it means to you and be that serious about protecting what you love.”