Sunnyside County Park is the type of place Oregonians normally go to relax.
Located east of Sweet Home in the Cascade Foothills, the 160-site campground features fishing ponds, horseshoe pits and access to the sparkling water of Foster Reservoir.
But this summer Sunnyside was not such a tranquil place, park officials said, as the demand for campsites overtook campground capacity.
"Campsite pirates" claimed already reserved sites as their own. They tore off reservation tags from the campground's kiosks and replaced them with their own, leaving the original parties confused — and angry — when they showed up and foundtheir campsite occupied.
Tensions also ran high over first-come, first-served campsites. Plagued by the question of who arrived first, rangers had to play mediator and detective to determine the rightful occupant of the site. Two people even threw punches, said Brian Carroll, the director for Linn County Parks and Recreation.
“People were literally fighting over campsites,” said Carroll. “What we experienced this year was certainly a general level of increased frustration and anxiety of people not being able to get their campsite. There seems to be less general common courtesy going on.”
While fistfights and campsite piracy are extreme examples, interviews with rangers and land managers make clear there is growing anger and sometimes violence at Oregon’s crowded campgrounds.
Earlier this year, the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department reported assaults and harassment of park rangers had increased to the point the agency would seek legislation to give rangers added protection and increase the penalty for attacking them.
Rangers have reported not only being physically assaulted, but being stalked by campers with firearms and even attacked by campers’ dogs. Last April, graffiti was found at State Capitol State Park that said “die rangers” in a bathroom along with a racial slur.
“Traditionally about 1% of our visitors really struggle with complying to rules and regulations,” said Dennis Benson, recreation manager for Deschutes National Forest. “Now, we've got more like 10% of the population that doesn't comply or adhere with rules, regulations, those kinds of things, which is lending itself to more problematic behaviors on public lands.”
Skyrocketing demand fuels stress
Demand for Oregon campsites has been growing sharply for well over a decade, but skyrocketed during the pandemic and hasn’t let up, often leaving a shortfall of available spots.
As the Statesman Journal reported this spring, the number of campers has grown rapidly with the state’s population boom, but campsite capacity hasn’t kept up, especially in popular areas. Oregon’s state park system has opened just three new campgrounds since 1972.
The result has been frequently sold-out campsites, even midweek, along with the familiar story of people waking early to reserve a campsite six months in advance.
Last year, the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department set records for its total numbers of visitors — an estimated 53.6 million day visits and 3.02 million campers who stayed overnight. This year’s numbers are about the same, state Parks and Recreation Department associate director Chris Havel said.
“This summer we’ve been extremely busy, at 96% to 98% capacity, which basically means you might find a night here or there, but basically everything is taken,” Havel said. “What we’re noticing again this year is that it’s a lot of people new to camping and the outdoors in general. In other words, the trend that we saw start during the pandemic of people coming out for the first time is continuing, and that means we’re going to stay busy.”
'We are relying on the public to be honorable'
At Sunnyside — and at many other campgrounds — there is a mix of sites open to reservations and first-come, first-served, with the idea of allowing for spontaneous trips or planning options.
But the combination of the two can lead to trouble when all the reservation sites are taken in advance — which is happening more frequently — and people still show up for a limited number of first-come sites.
People who’ve packed up their boat, trailer, camping gear and kids become desperate, and a growing number appear unwilling to accept defeat.
Carroll said that people resorted to taking down tags for already-reserved campsites and replacing them with their own. It's an action equivalent to snatching a reservation card off a campsite and claiming it for your own.
"In the past, it was extremely rare,” he said. “Have there been disputes? Yeah, you know that happened previously. But like I said, not on the scale that we saw this year."
Posts in Facebook groups have referenced this type of campground piracy happening in other cases, including people taking over campsites already reserved by someone else. But land managers said campground piracy is fairly rare overall, especially since most campgrounds at least have a host.
In a perfect world, park staff could help mediate disputes. However, a labor shortage left a number of Oregon campgrounds without staff this summer, leaving campers to handle disputes on their own.
“In more remote campgrounds or the smaller campgrounds we don't have staff available, and we are relying on the public to be honorable,” Carroll said.
Rising anger targeted at park rangers
Whether it stems from COVID-19, more newcomers entering the outdoor world or simply the volatile social climate, people are apparently less honorable and more angry in recent years, rangers said.
“The interactions that our staff are having with the public have been really challenging over the last three years,” Benson said. “People are angrier, and that is coming out on our employees and it's very concerning.”
Kade Pulliam is a park ranger II with Linn County. He worked at Sunnyside this summer, along with a few other parks, where he said he’s seen people’s increased frustration.
“Not everybody that's come and disrespected a ranger truly has it out for us rangers,” Pulliam said. “They normally have some kind of outside or personal happening that is upsetting for them, and they take their anger and frustration out on us.”
Havel said the trend in Oregon’s state parks is twofold. There are just more people, so by the law of large numbers, there are just more encounters over rules violations — usually, things like keeping dogs leashed or turning down music.
“But, unfortunately, what stands out is that we’re also seeing an increase in situations where people not only disagree with our rangers, but disagree in ways that include verbally attacking them, threatening physical violence and sometimes following through on those threats,” Havel said. “We have had rangers hit. More often, it’s a person who’s upset charging or threatening them in a very intense way. It’s not an enormous number of incidents, but it's growing and it doesn’t take many for us to see it as a critical issue.”
Havel said the state Parks and Recreation Department is looking for a state legislator to introduce a bill next session that would give added protections to rangers by increasing the penalty for assaulting them.
Reservation system offers some help
During the height of summer, Oregon’s state parks system has moved to the point that the vast majority of campgrounds are controlled by reservations.
Reservation systems allow park staff to easily track who has rightful access to a campsite, and it eliminates the confusion associated with first-come, first-served sites. Disputes over campsites were limited at state parks this summer as a result, Havel said.
“Almost all of our summer camping is by reservation, so there aren't big lineups at the park entrance and there are no people rushing to get a campsite and running into other people also looking for a campsite,” Havel said. “That just doesn't happen in the state park system because it's all taken care of in advance.”
But it’s not perfect. No first-come, first-served sites eliminates the type of spontaneous trips Oregonians have become used to. It can require people to make summer plans in winter before they know about issues like weather, sickness or the unpredictability of life. And there's evidence that people will hoard campsites online but then not use them. Outside Magazine has reported on campgrounds that are fully booked yet only half filled.
Havel said that hasn’t been a big issue at Oregon state parks — less than 1% of the reservations made don’t show or cancel. But no-shows have been an issue for permits and campsites in other parts of the state.
Overall, parks officials said, Oregon’s outdoor boom has put stress on everybody — campers and rangers. And with limited options and funds for building new campsites, the situation is likely to continue.
“People are loving the outdoors to death, and I think we're at the point where, at least locally for our system, that's come home,” Carroll said. “Even the camping side of things, people are loving it to the point where we were having trouble meeting the demand.”
Makenzie Elliott is an outdoors intern at the Salem Statesman Journal. Reach her at MElliott@Salem.gannett.com.
Zach Urness has been an outdoors reporter in Oregon for 15 years and is host of the Explore Oregon Podcast. To support his work, subscribe to the Statesman Journal. He can be reached at zurness@StatesmanJournal.com or 503-399-6801. Find him on Twitter at @ZachsORoutdoors.
This article originally appeared on Salem Statesman Journal: Anger boils at crowded Oregon campsites