In the middle of the day on Aug. 16, 2017, a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter hoisted a woman off a cliff near the Sea Lion Caves in Florence, reuniting her with her family after five days and nights in the woods. Two weeks earlier, the Coast Guard rescued an injured man aboard a sailboat off the coast of Gold Beach. And just weeks before that, the Coast Guard rescued two fishermen from a sinking vessel near Coos Bay.
These incidents are anything but rare along the Oregon Coast and elsewhere in the state of Oregon, where residents and visitors from around the world participate in a wide variety of activities — hiking, fishing, surfing, swimming, mountain biking, kayaking and tide pooling are common.
Sometimes people get lost or injured, even when they’ve done all they can and should do to be prepared. And, on the Oregon Coast, they rely on the U.S. Coast Guard, along with emergency responders and search and rescue (SAR) teams, to help them return to safety. This raises big questions about the role the local tourism industry should play in mitigating these risks — questions that coastal partners are currently grappling with.
One of three deep draft ports on the Coast, a prime surfing spot, and recreational fishing destination, Newport has for more than 30 years relied on the MH-65 Dolphin helicopter to complete SAR missions in the area. In 2014, when budget cuts within the Coast Guard led the agency to threaten the closure of the Newport rescue helicopter facility, the community rallied to save it. Led by Newport Fishermen’s Wives, the campaign to “Save the Helo” brought together commercial fishermen, outdoor recreationalists, sport fishing groups, emergency responders, elected officials and other unlikely allies.
“People knew that losing the helicopter would mean losing lives. It was a non-divisive issue,” says Charlie Plybon, Surfrider Foundation’s Oregon policy manager. In 2015, the Surfrider Foundation’s Newport Chapter, a nonprofit dedicated to the protection and enjoyment of oceans, waves and beaches, assisted the “Save the Helo” campaign by gathering and analyzing data about the number and type of rescues occurring in the Newport area.
The grassroots campaign paid off. Oregon’s congressional delegates helped secure federal legislation to keep the facility open until January 2018. And, then in May 2017, the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure passed H.R. 2518, the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2017, which included language that promised to keep the Newport air facility open permanently. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) was a co-sponsor of the bill. It was a big win for the community.
Now, with funding for the rescue helicopter secure, some leaders in the community want to redirect their efforts into preventing accidents from happening in the first place. Businesses, land managers, elected officials and residents all have a role to play.
“We have a wild and beautiful coast that beckons adventurous travel and recreation. If we want to keep people and our environment safe and accessible for future generations, it’s up to all of us to educate visitors and ensure people and nature are protected,” Plybon says.
“The Oregon Coast Visitors Association is committed to convening dialogues regarding the role of the tourism industry in public safety, and developing programs to help tourism agencies address it,” says Marcus Hinz executive director, Oregon Coast Visitors Association (OCVA).
Toward this end, OCVA formed a strategic advisory group of state and federal resource management agencies responsible for safety issues to begin examining language commonly used in marketing efforts to draw people to the Coast.
“The Oregon coast is inherently a wild place with many risks. We could all be thinking more carefully about how we invite visitors to recreate here to help ensure they have a safe, enjoyable trip,” Hinz says.
Photo courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard