For Oregon’s Recreation Economy, a Watershed Moment

Marty Sheppard
Mia Sheppard—fly-fishing the Deschutes River for steelhead.

Love of land and water runs deep for Oregon’s recreation guides.

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 How’s this for a nice chunk of undeveloped real estate: roughly half of Oregon’s 62 million acres is publicly owned. A good bit of that’s water, and whether you’re a visitor setting first sights on the majesty of an Oregon river, the seasoned guide who paddled him or her safely there, or the trained conservationist working behind the scenes to protect that waterway’s pristine conditions, it’s easy to recognize the value of keeping it healthy and accessible.

Oregon’s Outdoor Recreation Industry is flourishing in every corner of our state, forging an economic expansion from which good stewardship and smart enterprise flow outward, annually generating $12.8 billion in spending on gear, services and travel and providing a vital shot of revenue to rural communities.

Take Joseph, Oregon, pop. 1,052. Reaching this cozy community perched at the base of the snow-capped Wallowa Mountains in the state’s northeast corner takes some doing, says guide Penny Arentsen. But get here, she promises, and you’re going to love it here.

Penny and her husband, Paul Arentsen, owners of Winding Waters River Expeditions, guide whitewater rafting and fly-fishing expeditions along Oregon’s Snake, Grande Ronde and Wallowa rivers, plus Idaho’s Salmon River. Take, also, Maupin, Oregon, pop. 413. It’s a wildlife-rich enclave in spitting distance of Central Oregon’s Deschutes River, seated at the convergence of Western heritage and outdoor recreation, says guide Mia Sheppard. And it’s a sensory feast, best devoured while rafting, drifting and fishing.

salmon river by David Jensen lr
Sunset on a Winding Waters River Expeditions camp. – photo by David Jensen

Mia and her husband, Marty Sheppard, owners of Maupin-based Little Creek Outfitters, organize fly-fishing trips along Oregon’s John Day, Grand Ronde and Sandy rivers in addition to the Deschutes.

Like two tributaries converging, the fates of Oregon’s public spaces and the recreation businesses that operate at their edges are bound together intimately. Work it right, and the benefits flow in both directions, notes Arentsen, who holds degrees in geology and watershed science: anglers provide the state with crucial observations about fish runs, while visitors can be fashioned into lifelong stewards.

“We talk about the importance of having these wild places to be able to get into and see,” she says. “We get people out there and see those places and they…understand the importance of public access to these waterways.”

Recreation-based small businesses like these offer rural areas a much-needed economic boost. Little Creek seasonally employs about five people, while Winding Waters employs 17 full-time and five part-time seasonal employees — significant offerings in small Oregon towns like Joseph and Maupin.

And recreation dollars inevitably trickle onward to surrounding businesses, especially when recreationalists spend the night: data shows that overnight visitors spend three times as much as day-paddlers.

That’s a boon for the entire community, says Sheppard: “There’s money flowing through these small rural areas because of outfitters that are established here.”

Doug Crane LR
Doug Crane plays a prized summer steelhead on the Deschutes River.

A love of the outdoors drew both couples to guiding, and that stewardship doesn’t stop at the water’s edge. Arentsen is part of efforts to bring a town playground and a 63-mile multi-use trail to Joseph. And both women are members of the Oregon Outdoor Recreation Leadership Team, a newly forming statewide initiative aimed at growing outdoor recreation in a sustainable manner for residents and visitors. This work will elevate the sector as a key economic driver in Oregon’s communities while protecting and sustaining what makes Oregon, Oregon: our publicly owned natural assets.

It’s important that Oregon’s 500-plus guides and outfitters, and the hunting-and-angling community, weigh in on the future of Oregon recreation, says Sheppard: “Public access is so important. And if we lose it, we lose the opportunity to fish. We lose the opportunity to float a river. We lose the opportunity to see and explore these beautiful places that we call home.”

Other efforts are writ much larger: Travel Oregon’s Outdoor Recreation (Means Business) Initiative is working to bring together industry stakeholders to increase the economic impact and sustainability of the outdoor recreation economy through a wealth of channels, including improving access to Oregon’s publicly owned land.

And last spring, Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden and Rep. Earl Blumenauer introduced the Recreation Not Red-Tape Act, which aims to expand recreation opportunities in Oregon and beyond by streamlining permitting processes and simplifying access for guides and visitors alike.

Oregon’s public lands are a treasure, says Sheppard. Keep them healthy, and you also protect their accessibility: “You’ve got to invest in the future. I want to make sure I have a healthy, clean river to fish and float, and I want my daughter to be able to do it, too. You’ve got to get involved and be vocal about the things you love. For me, that’s the outdoors and it’s the rivers and it’s public access to fish.”

When the unmanicured portions of Oregon’s sizeable backyard beckon, Arentsen agrees, there’s no better way to travel than by river: “It takes you through land you’d never see otherwise. You could go on horseback or hike, but for somebody who can’t do those things, getting on a boat — be it a jet boat or a raft — is the only way they’re ever going to be able to see some pretty amazing country and be inspired to conserve these wild places for the future.”


Correction:  This article has been amended to reflect the following correction.  The original story misstated the number of guides in Oregon.  There are more than 500, not 80.