How to enhance and expand ways to draw visitors to the Blue Mountains was the center of discussion for a meeting of community members this week.
The creation of a Blue Mountain recreation hub would link communities surrounding the area to create “many different business opportunities catering to all kinds of outdoor recreation,” said Mike Denny, one of the meeting organizers.
The gathering at the U.S. Forest Service office in Walla Walla drew about 25 attendees from both the public and private sectors. At the end of the hourlong meeting, it was agreed that a smaller group of 8-10 people would meet again in about three weeks to continue the discussion on how to develop the concept and move forward.
“The Blue Mountains are the most unique mountains in the Pacific Northwest,” Denny told the group. The massive range is 100 miles across and 400 miles long “yet many people don’t seem to know it’s there,” he said.
A recreation hub is “where there are communities that cater to outdoorsmen,” he said. This includes lodging, restaurants, bed-and-breakfast operations, sporting goods stores and many other businesses catering to outdoor enthusiasts.
The effort would involve creating better access into the Northern Blues with clear directional signage starting from the surrounding towns, creating business opportunities on the private lands in the foothills and inclusion of a “strong environmental part” to urge visitors to respect and not degrade the area.
Walla Walla District Ranger Mike Rassbach said that as the Forest Service sees it, a recreation hub is “communities where the quality of life depends greatly on the forest.” This can be enhanced by nature-based eco-tourism, community festivals and events that attract local, regional and national visitors.
“To be honest with you, I think we have (recreational) hubs, and they may not be as broadly marketed as such, but certainly as I think about our communities that surround the Blue Mountains, each one has a component of a rec hub. And so, to me, the question is — is there a willingness or desire to bring a lot of those things together to whatever scale the group wants to go to?” he said.
Several at the meeting noted the need to balance environmental protection with the effort to attract more people and more diverse groups to the area. Others pointed out that it would be important to identify “what you don’t want to see happen” with an increased influx of visitors.
Walla Walla Mayor Barbara Clark said she hoped the first thing people talked about would be protecting areas.
“It seems to me that before we decide to invite more people in, we need to talk about the questions that have been raised by several people, which is how you protect life (in the forest).”