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Cars towed, drivers warned about illegal parking at Oregon recreation areas


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Public officials in Oregon and Washington are sending a stern message to those visiting trailheads and recreation areas across the region this weekend: park illegally and you might get towed.


The U.S. Forest Service tweeted out a photo Thursday showing a car being towed from a trailhead parking area in the Mount Hood National Forest, along with a warning that law enforcement agencies would ticket and tow parked vehicles that pose a danger to public safety.


Earlier in the week, the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office issued a warning on Facebook about illegal parking at a popular stretch of the Clackamas River, where 16 cars were towed Sunday.


Forest service and state park officials said Friday that while illegal parking is nothing new, it’s been a bigger problem this summer as huge crowds have flocked to natural areas across the region amid the coronavirus pandemic that has canceled summer plans.


Illegal parking can be a nuisance to other drivers and pedestrians, but also poses a serious risk when cars block access to emergency vehicles, they said.


“We don’t tow away cars lightly,” said Heather Ibsen, spokeswoman for the Mount Hood National Forest. “They’re not towing just to make a point, they’re towing to help make sure an ambulance can get through.”


The two primary scenarios that would call for a tow truck are cars blocking emergency access to trailheads and recreation areas, where search and rescue teams are often sent for help, and cars parked in a roadway itself.


Any car that’s parked over the line into a road is subject to being towed, according the Oregon Department of Transportation. That violation is a frequent occurrence at some popular recreation areas with limited parking.


Marcus Mendoza, spokesman for the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office, said one of the most problematic areas his department oversees is a stretch of the Sandy River between Barton Park and Carver Park, where thousands of people show up to float the river on warm weekends, many parking along the narrow shoulders of Springwater Road.


“It’s the same story every year, every hot weekend,” Mendoza said. “We don’t want to tow them but we’re going to.”

Mendoza said he wouldn’t be surprised if 100 cars wind up getting towed along that stretch by the end of the summer. Instead of parking along the road, he recommends people simply float a different stretch of the Clackamas River just a little farther upriver, starting at Milo McIver State Park which has an ample public parking.


Even state parks with sizable lots have seen parking woes, particularly on the north Oregon coast.


Chris Havel, spokesman for the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, said rangers have started closing the entrance gates on some day-use parking lots on the coast, only allowing people in once enough cars have left. That kind of crowding sometimes leads to people parking along the side of U.S. 101, which can pose safety issues as pedestrians walk down the side of the highway.


“It’s worse than we have ever seen it,” Havel said of this summer. “We do what we can, but we can only control what happens inside the parking lot.”


Havel said rangers will occasionally leave citations or call for a tow, but only if a car is blocking emergency access and needs to be moved immediately. Oswald West State Park is one of the worst spots for illegal parking, he said, especially since its three parking areas are located along the side of U.S. 101.


The Columbia River Gorge is another problem area, particularly the popular Angel’s Rest Trail, officials said. The small trailhead parking lot is managed by the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, and when that lot fills up, people tend to park on the shoulders of the Historic Columbia River Highway, which is managed by the Oregon Department of Transportation.


Both agencies said the parking there has long been an issue, and expect it to be especially bad this weekend: The Angel’s Rest Trail reopened Tuesday for the first time in nearly five months, after closing in March to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.


Multnomah Falls also reopened Tuesday, along with the Wahkeena Falls and Horsetail Falls trails, and a stretch of the historic highway that had been closed to both cars and cyclists. All are busy recreation areas, and all pose serious parking concerns.


“Even in the best of times parking is a major problem in the gorge,” ODOT spokesman Don Hamilton said. “We’re expecting major crowds in the gorge this weekend with Multnomah Falls and some of the waterfalls open again. A lot of those locations have limited parking.”


Hamilton said towing in the Columbia Gorge remains rare, but that anyone parked illegally shouldn’t be surprised if it happens. Most cars that are towed, whether in the Columbia Gorge, on Mount Hood, or at the Oregon coast, are parked in areas that are clearly marked with “no parking” signs, officials said.


Still, coming off a trail to find your car missing could be an alarming experience, especially in more remote areas with little cell service. Removing one safety hazard could produce another, as stranded drivers are left to find a way home on their own.


The forest service followed up its initial tweet about towing with a clarification that cars are towed as close to the same recreation area as possible, but forest officials said Friday that cars are sometimes taken to nearby towns like Sandy and Boring.


The Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office said its deputies typically cite drivers $120 and up for illegal parking infractions, and only tow a vehicle if it’s blocking a lane or an entrance or exit to a recreation area. Cars are typically towed to Gresham or east Portland, and drivers usually learn their cars have been towed when they call 911 to report them missing or stolen, the sheriff’s office said.


Mendoza said that serious issues following a tow rarely happen, if ever, at least as far as his agency knows. And just like parking illegally in a disabled parking space, those who break the law should have known better, he said.


“I think the onus is on the person who chose to park in a hazardous area,” Mendoza said. “Unfortunately there’s consequences to our actions sometimes.”


The message agencies have been pushing to the public is to simply avoid recreating at peak days and hours, if possible, and to come with backup plans or simply go home if there’s nowhere safe to park.


Catherine Caruso, spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service in the Pacific Northwest, said illegal parking is just one issue that arises with crowding at recreation areas.


This summer, rangers have also seen more litter and trash left behind, and are increasingly concerned about human-caused wildfires as campgrounds continue to fill and trailheads remain busier than ever. Search and rescue operations can also be stretched thin with so many people, and could be hampered by cars blocking narrow forest roads.

Those issues may be more pronounced this summer, but none of them is new, Caruso said.


“The truth is these are endemic issues,” she said. “We have issues with trash, we have issues with human waste, we have issues with people parking illegally.”


Towing may help remove individual hazards, and could help educate people about the dangers of parking illegally, but forest officials don’t expect the problem to vanish overnight – especially as more people are drawn to the Northwest’s natural attractions this summer.


“We’re really happy to have so much interest and so many people out enjoying the forests,” Caruso said. But while you’re out there, “take some personal responsibility and do the right thing.”



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On one Fourth of July in San Diego's Pacific Beach area, the city, in preparation to the throng of crowds coming to watch fireworks, posted literally hundreds of no parking tow-away signs on a prominent bridge. Additionally, local newscasts mentioned the tow-away process days prior to the event. Within a couple hours before the fireworks started, it only took one person to pull-in, toss the sign and park, when many, many others saw that action and followed behind doing the same thing. Nearly 70-cars were towed for violation of signs by a several companies working double loads on carriers. By the time midnight rolled around, we made back to back runs and towed twenty-six cars. It amazes me that motorists follow the actions of one and can't or don't use common sense during speciall events.      R. 

Randall C. Resch

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