Central Oregon’s tourism industry changed at an alarming pace in March 2020. Travel Oregon and Visit Central Oregon responded by re-strategizing the Central Oregon RCTP tactics for FY20-21. A new Destination Development tactic included the adoption of Discover Your Forest’s (DYF) “Deschutes National Forest Ambassadors” program developed with DMO partner, Visit Bend.
Three high-use “ambassador site” trailheads with volunteer ambassadors were to be selected and overseen by DYF, serving as communication touchpoints for public health and sustainable messaging to trail users. “Take Care Out There” messaging would further complement the region’s trailhead messaging efforts, utilizing the toolkit’s brand and framework which reflected current public health guidance from Governor Brown and the Oregon Health Authority. Messaging regarding recreational access would be updated on an ongoing basis to remain current and accurate at a time when new information was rapidly changing.
COVID-19 cases unfortunately continued to rise throughout 2020. The Deschutes National Forest Ambassadors program could not be implemented as the U.S. Forest Service could not guarantee the safety of their valued volunteers. Additionally, stay-home orders were mandated by the governor. As a COVID-19-safe activity, Oregonians were encouraged to enjoy our outdoor places, masked and safely socially distanced.
Regardless of the stay-home order, Central Oregon’s forests saw an overwhelming increase in use in 2020 from the pandemic. As a result, issues with user conflict, resource damage and safety issues also arose. Despite the best efforts of Central Oregon land managers, responsible recreation messages were not reaching most users. Central Oregon’s national forests need for support with public outreach efforts was more important than ever.
In response, the Deschutes National Forest Ambassadors program evolved to a new “Virtual Trailhead Ambassadors” Take Care Out There video series.
During planning for the RCTP FY19-21 biennium, stewardship and mitigation of the impact on Central Oregon’s outdoor and natural resources was (and continues to be) a top priority for regional stakeholders.
The Take Care Out There videos featuring local ambassadors allowed the U.S. Forest Service, Discover Your Forest and Visit Central Oregon to continue collaborating and be proactive with destination stewardship messaging.
The virtual format also presented the opportunity to feature Central Oregon guides, outfitters, and land-use nonprofits as virtual ambassadors in the educational videos. The intention for recruiting non-uniformed virtual ambassadors was to assist the USFS in delivering the educational messaging from a peer or trusted advisor, rather than from a uniformed manager.
By focusing on experiences that were deemed COVID-19-safe, the content created would inspire stewardship and educate viewers on matters including how to navigate busy day-use areas, and how to act on the trails for everyone to feel welcome and enjoy Central Oregon’s natural wonders, safely and responsibly.
Visit Central Oregon and Discover Your Forest evolved the in-person Deschutes National Forest Ambassador program to a Virtual Trailhead Ambassador format out of necessity from the barriers of COVID-19. As a result, 10 short Take Care Out There educational videos have been created to educate and inspire viewers to recreate responsibly on Central Oregon trails and in our public lands.
In April 2021, Visit Central Oregon launched a landing page dedicated to the U.S. Forest Services’ new Central Cascades Wilderness Permit System. Since going live, the optimized content is boosting the efforts to get the necessary information out to the public about the new permitting system.
- The Central Cascades Wilderness Permit System page has produced nearly 5,000 views.
- The Central Cascades Wilderness Permit System video has more than 3,000 views on YouTube.
- The overall Take Care Out There content on VisitCentralOregon.com has produced more than 8,700 pageviews.
In support of our regional partners that were financially impacted by COVID-19, the Central Oregon guides, outfitters, and land-use nonprofits were offered a stipend in return for their participation and time as a featured “ambassador.”
Additionally, the project qualified to receive an unencumbered 45% reimbursement from a portion of the total project costs upon completion. This reimbursement is from a Travel Oregon and U.S. Forest Service collaborative program, the Oregon Trails Fund, created to improve trail infrastructure via planning, development, and maintenance of Oregon’s trail network.