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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

New Multnomah Falls parking fees spark debate, federal review

By Jamie Hale The Oregonian

Multnomah Falls visitors have already had to contend with traffic jams, new timed entry permits and occasional closures. Now some are staring at new parking fees.

A small private parking lot across the street from the waterfall on the Historic Columbia River Highway has become a flashpoint for debate after new parking meters went up last weekend charging visitors up to $20 for what had previously been free spots.

Sasquatch Shuttle – the company that operates the lot, runs a seasonal shuttle service to the falls and offers guided tours of the historic highway – implemented the new parking fees Thursday to alleviate congestion in the Columbia Gorge, the Salem Statesman Journal first reported Friday.

The fees do not affect the main Multnomah Falls parking lot off Interstate 84, which remains free. Sasquatch Shuttle said it has leased the small lot on the historic highway from Union Pacific Railroad and will charge between $5 and $20 based on the day and season.

The fees are reportedly rankling some visitors and have raised concerns within the U.S. Forest Service, which manages Multnomah Falls and is reviewing the situation.

“While the Forest Service is interested in new approaches to reduce congestion and increase traffic safety around Multnomah Falls, we need to ensure it’s done in way that balances public access needs through an equity lens with our responsibilities to protect and preserve this landscape,” the federal agency said in an emailed statement.

“We typically do that by requiring projects or changes like this to undergo a detailed approval process, including coordination with our partners, to ensure compliance with the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act,” the statement said.

Nic Granum, deputy forest supervisor for the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, said although new parking fees have been under discussion for years, it isn’t clear whether Sasquatch Shuttle is permitted to implement them. The ownership of that parking lot is also currently in question, despite the arrangement struck between the railroad company and shuttle service, Granum said.

The national scenic area is a confusing patchwork of federal, state, county, city and private lands, where small parcels can lead to major headaches whenever land ownership is called into question.

Granum said there’s currently no timeline for sorting out the issue at Multnomah Falls, but emphasized the agency’s sense of urgency.

“It’s a high priority for us to get this resolved,” Granum said. “I think the more clarity we have the better.”

Meanwhile, Sasquatch Shuttle owners said they are simply implementing a crowd control measure that has been a long time coming, using their status as a private company to enact change more quickly than the various government agencies that operate in the Columbia Gorge.

“We’re doing what the government was unable to do,” co-owner Kent Krumpschmidt said.

Sasquatch Shuttle also owns a 250-space parking lot in nearby Bridal Veil, where people can pay $5 for parking and a shuttle ride to Multnomah Falls. The company said those who don’t want to pay up to $20 to park in the roughly 48-space lot in front of the falls are encouraged to use their shuttle instead.

On Tuesday afternoon, the company’s small pay lot near Multnomah Falls was nearly full, even though plenty of parking spaces were open in the free lot off Interstate 84. A parking attendant, who was busy collecting $10 payments, said the company would be charging $20 once its shuttle was up and running in May.

The Sasquatch Shuttle parking, located steps away from the Multnomah Falls Lodge, offers premium access for those who want it, the company said. They also happen to be the only parking spots for those visiting the waterfall via the Historic Columbia River Highway, which runs parallel to the interstate.

There is no convenient way to get from the historic highway to the main Multnomah Falls parking lot, forcing visitors to either bypass the main attraction of the famed “waterfall corridor” or jockey for spots in the small pay lot. That design has led to the infamous traffic congestion issues, which all parties in the Columbia River Gorge have been working to correct.

“It’s a massive safety issue, and it’s also an environmental concern,” said Krumpschmidt, who is a former deputy with the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office. “There were many instances where emergency response was delayed sometimes drastically.”

Krumpschmidt and fellow co-owner Alan Dayley said they are not motivated by profit, but by a desire to alleviate that congestion. Money from the parking spots goes toward supporting their shuttle service, they said, as well as employees who monitor the parking lots.

“Nobody likes change,” Dayley said. “No one’s going to like having to pay for something that’s historically been free.”

As for the U.S. Forest Service review, the Sasquatch Shuttle owners said their understanding is that the government agency is not challenging the fees themselves but the installation of a fee machine in the parking lot. They also said the question of who owns the lot has been bouncing around for nearly two years, with no resolution and no evidence presented to them either way.

Until it all gets resolved, the new parking fees will remain with peak tourism season set to begin in May.

Visitors who park in the main lot off Interstate 84 will continue to be able to park there for free, though $2 timed entry permits will once again be required between May 24 and Sept. 2, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. Those permits will not be required for cars parking in the new Sasquatch Shuttle pay lot.

Granum urged the public not to frame the parking issue as a conflict between Sasquatch Shuttle and the U.S. Forest Service. Both entities share the same vision for Multnomah Falls and the Historic Columbia River Highway, he said.

“We have different authorities and different objectives just by our nature, but we’re all users of the gorge and stewards of all the responsibilities we have,” including recreational access, environmental considerations and economic development, Granum said. “All of those things are important and sometimes finding the balance in those doesn’t happen overnight.”

The owners of Sasquatch Shuttle agreed, citing their continued good relationship with the agency.

“We like the forest service, we’re all going the same direction and we all have the same end goal in mind,” Dayley said. “We have no beef with them whatsoever.”