PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – In 1922, Sarah Helmick donated a nearly 5.5-acre plot of land along the Luckiamute River to the state of Oregon — the first of nearly 200 state parks that would form in the next 100 years.
Now, as Oregon celebrates the centennial of its state parks in 2022, Oregon Parks and Recreation spokesperson Chris Havel said this year serves as an opportunity to truly appreciate these public spaces.
“It’s a reminder of how wonderful it is to have places like this to go to for rest and recovery and a reminder of what’s really important in our lives,” he said.
OPRD is looking back on how far its state parks have come, and how it can continue to make the parks more accessible and welcoming to people in the future.
Oregon’s state parks have been works in progress over the last century. The Sarah Helmick State Recreation Site started out as a simple picnic area along the river. Now, some Oregon state parks include features like yurt camping, mountain bike trails, and frisbee golf courses — things you’d never find in a state park decades ago.
While these features are new, the purpose of state parks has remained the same over the years. They’re still places people can visit to enjoy the land and nature where they live. They’re places to connect with the nearby community, to rest and unwind and to have new experiences.
Havel said the main thing that’s changed over the last century has been making the parks more accessible and welcoming to everyone.
“It has not always been true that everybody has felt welcomed in public places,” Havel said.
He said in the past, Native Americans and people of color have been excluded from state parks. The recreational opportunities also haven’t been accessible to people of all abilities. More recently, OPRD has been focusing on how to change that.
“The sort of ‘Who is welcome?’ and ‘What are parks for?’ and ‘Where are they going?’ at the foundation, it really hasn’t ever changed. But our understanding of how to be a better servant to the entire community, that’s undergone change even in the last five years,” Havel said.
He said ORPD has had to ask itself tough questions about which populations it’s unintentionally excluded over the years and has been looking for ways to be more welcoming.
An example he gave was how Oregon state parks are working to involve more Native American history and educational resources, to inform people of how the land was used long before it was ever designated as an Oregon state park.
“The lands that you visit, as part of the state park system, will often help you sort of get in contact with that story of the people who were here before settlement by Western governments, and who are still here,” Havel said.
He said connecting with Oregon’s history and informing people of how settlers treated Native people in the past are things the state park system can offer. OPRD is working to update its signage at parks to offer more natural and cultural perspectives. He said the process of updating these signs has been slow, but he wants people to know it’s in progress.
These photos from Oregon Parks and Recreation Department show Oregon’s state parks through the decades:
KOIN 6 News asked Havel if he thinks there will be more Oregon state parks created in the next 100 years. He said, “without a doubt, there will be new state parks.”
He said there aren’t any on the cusp of opening now, but he feels certain there are more to come. He said the state’s newest park, Sitka Sedge State Natural Area north of Pacific City, is a park that’s lesser-known, and likely less crowded, than some other parks on the Oregon coast.
Brian Booth State Park, also on the coast, is another work in progress. It will soon be expanded to include a camping area.
For anyone looking for an opportunity to explore more state parks, Havel recommends participating in one of the dozens of volunteer events coming up in 2022. OPRD planned 100 volunteer days for the 100-year anniversary, and Havel said many events are taking place in the summer.
June 4 is also State Parks Day and OPRD plans to hold a centennial celebration at Sarah Helmick State Recreation Site starting at 10 a.m. Oregon Historical Society is commemorating the centennial with a photo exhibition called “A Century of Wonder: 100 Years of Oregon State Parks.”
To find a list of volunteer opportunities or more upcoming centennial events, visit the Oregon State Parks website.