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County officials say opening full Camp Wilkerson to large groups would be good for parks department

Members of the Columbia County chapter of Oregon Equestrian Trails challenged a Columbia County Parks Department proposal to increase rental access to the Camp Wilkerson campsite.

Camp Wilkerson is a 280-acre county park located in the Forest Grove District State Forest between Deer Island and Vernonia. The campsite includes cabins, tent sites and a lodge accommodating up to 250 people.

The site is also a coveted location for groups that some see as incompatible: equestrians and wedding parties.

PMG PHOTO: ANNA DEL SAVIO - Members of the Columbia County branch of Oregon Equestrian Trails argued against a proposed change to campsite rentals at an April 24 meeting. The change would allow parties to reserve the entire Camp Wilkerson campground, including the six equestrian campsites, for events like weddings and family reunions. Camp Wilkerson contains six campsites specifically set up for visitors with horses. With equestrian campsites and miles of trails suitable for horseback riding, local equestrians say Camp Wilkerson is the best option in the county for outdoor recreation with horses.

The site's amenities also make it ideal for hosting large events, like weddings, family reunions or retreats. But with quiet hours starting at 10 p.m., big celebrations can't last all night.

As director of general services for Columbia County, Casey Garrett manages the county's parks. After months of discussion, Garrett recommended that the county offer visitors the option of renting the entire campsite.

For visitors, this would mean more space and no worries about disrupting neighbors after 10 p.m. For the county, it would mean more revenue to fund maintaining and expanding parks.

Campsites in Camp Wilkerson were occupied an average 13.9% of nights from May to September 2018. Equestrian campsites were slightly higher, with 15.14% usage.

Renting all of Camp Wilkerson for weekend events would bring in $5,000 from each booking, which would give visitors a night at the campsite and two days of lodge use. Parties renting for events are also required to have $2 million insurance coverage.PMG PHOTO: ANNA DEL SAVIO - Columbia County general services director Casey Garrett proposed the change to campsite rentals at Camp Wilkerson, which he said could bring in an additional $15,000 this year.

To members of OET, allowing visitors to occupy the equestrian campsites would be an unfair use of hard-earned resources.

OET has been active in repairing and improving county recreation facilities, which have benefited both equestrian and non-equestrian visitors.

"This portion of the park was built with volunteer's money... a countless number of hours and dollars, and it feels like you're just saying 'thanks, we'll take it,'" Bev Peacock, a member of OET's Columbia County Chapter, said at a parks committee meeting Wednesday, April 24.

"More people and noise decreases the desirability of camping and riding. More activity does not help make Wilkerson an equestrian destination," OET member Rory Hammond wrote in a letter read at the meeting.

"(OET's) development has made these locations more desirable for all the competing user groups. It is unfortunate that as these locations have become more available, equestrians are slowly being pushed out," Hammond wrote.

"What's the purpose of county parks? Is it for the people, or is it a commercial endeavor?" OET member Bob Rice asked at the meeting.

"It's got to be a balance between the two," Garrett said, clarifying for OET members that the parks department does not receive funding from property taxes. Day use and rental fees make up a majority of the department's budget, but current funding isn't meeting the park's needs.

"We haven't been working in a sustainable format for years," Garrett said.

Before the policy can be changed, the proposal will go through the county's parks advisory committee and then in front of the county commissioners for a vote. Regardless, some OET members voiced frustration at the meeting.

"It seems to me you've already made up your mind," Peacock said.

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