USA–– The U.S. Forest Service saw a dramatic drop in visitors after wildfires ignited in Kittitas County this summer, and some outdoor-oriented businesses have felt the pinch.
Campground occupancy in the Cle Elum Ranger District of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest dropped 39 percent in August and September 2012 from the occupancy rates recorded in those months during 2011. In day-use areas, usage dropped 45 percent from 2011 during the same period.
Forest Service public affairs officer Nancy Jones says shes not sure to what extent the declining visitor numbers resulted directly from wildfires burning in the area and what role a campfire ban in place between early August and mid-October played in the decline.
It was definitely a combination of the two, but I dont know which was the bigger influence, Jones said. We just have the numbers that show what occupancy was.
The number of phone calls and visits to the ranger station requesting information increased, Jones said. She said almost all of those inquiries were fire related.
Nathanial Rowley, who co-owns Sahaptin Outfitters in Cle Elum said Thursday business in his store has been virtually non-existent for the past six weeks. Since the beginning of September, he estimates business has declined 80 percent. Sahaptin Outfitters sells and rents outdoor equipment and offers guided hiking trips and other outdoor activities.
Rowley says Sahaptin Outfitters business is closely tied to the national forest, and the Table Mountain Fire, which began Sept. 9, affected the business more than the Taylor Bridge Fire in August.
Sahaptin Outfitters, which opened in November 2011, hoped to receive a permit to guide hiking and backpacking trips on the national forest this fall, but couldnt complete the necessary environmental impact statement due to the fires.
They do plan to have a permit to guide this winter and spring.
The Table Mountain Fire burned large swaths of land from the southern edge of the national forest in the Reecer Creek area north to the Kittitas-Chelan county line and degraded air quality in the area for weeks.
At the moment, about 45-square-miles of forest remains closed in the area, Jones said, and managers are still assessing what areas might open for winter recreation this year.
The Lion Gulch and Cougar Gulch areas have reopened, but the Reecer Creek area remains closed, Jones said. The Blewett Pass area has reopened with some limitations.
Jones thinks keeping areas around Table Mountain closed could affect the number of people who visit the ranger district. Jones doubts those impacts will be significant because of the relatively small size of the sno-parks in the area. Some snowmobilers might go to other sno-parks in the ranger district, she said.
Jones acknowledged that people might want to see the burned area, but said safety concerns remain.
It goes right back to public safety, Jones said. We cant let people go into an area that we know theres hazards in.
Jim Gallagher, co-owner of Troutwater Fly Shop which guides trips and has locations in Cle Elum and Ellensburg, said his business was impacted by this years wildfires, but the effects werent huge.
Gallagher said his business saw a decline in retail sales, and poor air quality caused some clients with respiratory issues to cancel their guided trips. Gallagher said Troutwater continued guiding trips while the fires burned and fishing remained good.
Eyes were burning, throat was hurting, but we toughed it out, Gallagher said.
Still, Gallagher has concerns about what impacts the fire might have on fish habitat, especially in places where the Taylor Bridge Fire burned along the banks of the Yakima River.