Sen. Murray, others lend support to tourism effort

DARRINGTON — If you like hiking, mountain biking, rafting, trail riding or bluegrass, Sen. Patty Murray wants to tell you something about Darrington.

“The road’s going to get fixed, and boy, if you come up here, you’re going to have a great experience,” Murray said here Wednesday.

After the Oso mudslide buried Highway 530 — the town’s main link to the outside world — many here feared summer tourists would stay away.

The small mountain town has depended on summer visitors ever since logging was restricted on federal lands in the Northwest.

Local businesses, outdoor recreation groups and public officials are scrambling to save the summer, with an eye on boosting local tourism for the long term, as well. Murray, D-Wash., has used her office and connections to bring together representatives from stakeholders. A meeting Wednesday afternoon at the Darrington Community Center was part of that effort.

The state Department of Transportation is close to reopening a single lane of Highway 530. Like the unpaved bypass road in use now, Highway 530 will alternate between eastbound and westbound travel until a second lane is opened.

Two outdoor recreation companies based in Seattle and 10 advocacy groups are collaborating to publish and disseminate a map of outdoor activities around Darrington and amenities in town. The groups range from the Washington Trails Association to American Whitewater to The Mountaineers.

REI Inc. is paying to print 20,000 copies, which will be available at no cost in some of its Washington stores. Outdoor Research, a company that makes outdoor gear, is promoting an online version of the map through social media.

The advocacy groups will also pass it on to their members, which together add up to between 400,000 and 500,000, said Jon Owen of the Pew Charitable Trusts.

“Darrington is really a jumping off point for some of the best outdoor recreation the state has to offer,” he said.

The town hasn’t aggressively advertised those activities or businesses in town, such as a packhorse service, a coffee shop, a brewery, the IGA grocery store and a river rafting guide service.

“These are all businesses that a lot of our folks, I think, don’t realize are here,” Owen said.

Adventure Cascades, the rafting guide service in town, has seen business pick up slowly but steadily since it opened three years ago, owner Brian Pernick said.

“We’re booked each summer” from mid-June through August, he said.

The company takes customers down the Sauk, Suiattle and Skagit rivers.

“The rivers are actually at their best this time of year, but people look at the weather forecast and think its going to be miserable,” Pernick said as a light rain fell and mist shrouded the hills outside Darrington. “We’ve got the equipment and training to keep everyone warm and safe.”

Rafting will be one of several activities highlighted in a television commercial being developed by BrandQuery for a state-funded advertising campaign for local summer tourism.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Martha Rasmussen, who runs a website highlighting Darrington tourism, asked Murray and others for help building up the area’s winter tourism industry.

Like others in town, Rasmussen says tourism alone can’t save the local economy.

“We need more logging,” she said in an interview after the meeting.

Darrington’s lifeblood since the early 20th century was logging. The town used to support multiple timber mills and small logging companies. Logging revenue also supported dozens of jobs with the U.S. Forest Service. The high school’s mascot is the Logger.

But federal laws and regulations, such as the Northwest Forest Plan, intended to preserve natural resources also significantly cut logging jobs here.

When the forest plan was being developed in 1993, Murray traveled to Washington logging towns to talk about a transition from timber to tourism.

More than 20 years later in Darrington, she is still talking about that.

Dan Catchpole: 425-339-3454; dcatchpole@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @dcatchpole.

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