Editor’s note: Never before has Mother Nature experienced so deeply the effects of a changing planet. In celebration of Earth Day 2022, this four-part series dives into the effects of climate change on some Oregon destinations, attractions and industries. We also explore the resilience of local communities and the innovations of local leaders determined to keep Oregon one of the greenest places in the world to visit and live. Thank you for joining with us.
From the earthy aromas of pine forests to famously clear and dark night skies, Oregon’s air offers up a treat for the senses. But this critical resource — we breathe it in, after all — is at risk. Climate change has contributed to the frequency and intensity of wildfires, and population growth is causing upticks in pollution across the globe. Fortunately, communities and organizations across the state are joining together to celebrate and safeguard Oregon’s air, and there are lots of ways for residents and visitors to make a positive difference.
Turning Smoke Into Wine
In 2020 wildfires raced across the West Coast in the wake of hotter-than-normal temperatures, unusually dry conditions and high winds. The blazes consumed over a million acres in Oregon, and smoke enveloped crops in several of the state’s famed agricultural regions. Wine grapes bound for Oregon’s renowned vintages were especially hard hit: Volatile chemicals in the smoke settled on the skin of the fruit, impacting harvest at hundreds of family-run wineries. It was clearly a year to make proverbial lemonade from lemons, vintners soon realized.
Wineries across the state — including Fullerton Wines in Corvallis and Day Wines in Dundee — stepped up to the challenge of using some of the smoke-affected fruit, thousands of tons of which would have otherwise been left to rot in vineyards. “We made rosé out of it,” says Alex Fullerton, winemaker and co-owner of Fullerton Wines. Rosé is made by exposing juice to grape skins for a relatively short amount of time compared to red wine, so any smoke effect would be lessened. Visitors can still find some of these 2020 vintages, one of which is called, fittingly, Lemonade. In 2019, a similar project was called Oregon Solidarity Wine.
To protect future harvests from wildfire smoke, researchers at Oregon State University recently received a $7.65 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to investigate solutions like special coatings to protect grapes from smoke and developing sensors that can be installed in vineyards.
Fly Greener Into PDX
Getting around takes energy, and air travel is no exception. The Port of Portland has spent the past several years transforming Portland International Airport into a model of sustainability. Visitors in 2025 will see a completely redesigned main terminal into bright, open space sheltered by a curving latticework of wood. Extensive daylighting and a new ground-source heat-pump system will conserve energy. “The goal is to use 50% less energy, even as we increase in size,” says Katie Meeker, communications consultant for the Port of Portland. The new LEED-certified rental-car center, which opened in 2021, relies on solar power and efficient design to reduce energy use. It was built with an emerging technology called CarbonCure concrete, which permanently traps carbon dioxide.
Once you touch down, there are plenty of ways to reduce your own carbon footprint. You can purchase carbon offsets through your airline or a third-party service. Those with electric vehicles can take advantage of the expanded number of charging stations at Portland International Airport. If you don’t need to rent a car, the airport now has safer and more appealing routes for pedestrians and bikes.
Pro tip: Stop by the PDX Welcome Center on the arrivals level near the baggage claim to find out more about ground transportation options and free trip-planning resources. Don’t forget to pick up a copy of your free Travel Oregon Visitor Guide, Scenic Byways Driving Guide and more, or view them online.
Ditch the Car for Better Air Quality
Pollution-busting car-free itineraries abound throughout the state. For instance, the Columbia River Gorge can be easily explored via numerous shuttles with pickup spots in Portland, Hood River, The Dalles, Parkdale and beyond. Going car-free saves the hassle of navigating traffic and parking. (And be aware that personal vehicles will need a permit to access a 6-mile stretch of the Waterfall Corridor in the western Gorge for the summer season beginning in May 2022.)
Adventuring in an electric vehicle is also a great option — more than 65% of Oregon’s electricity comes from renewable resources like hydropower and wind power. Follow one of the many Electric Byways throughout the state, with their many charging stations, to explore while also preserving Oregon’s air.
If numbers float your boat, it’s easy to monitor air quality as you travel: Measurements from Oregon’s many air-quality sensors can be accessed online. You’ll most often see numbers referring to the Air Quality Index, a 0-to-500 scale where larger numbers correspond to a higher level of air pollution. Numbers below 50 indicate good air quality. This can be used as a good tool for visitors to choose their outdoor recreation spots — just as it is for Oregon’s frontline workers for their outdoor work.
Parks and other green spaces in urban areas often have cleaner air than their surroundings, and you can help preserve these healthy oases. SOLVE, a Portland-based nonprofit, organizes cleanup events and trail-maintenance days at parks across the state.
Celebrate Oregon’s Pristine Starry Skies
For those night owls out there, Oregon’s air can also be appreciated — and safeguarded — after the sun goes down. Visitors to Southern Oregon can enjoy stargazing at some of the darkest night skies in the United States thanks to concerted efforts to reduce nighttime artificial lighting. Under dark skies, the views of the cosmos are simply jaw-dropping, says Dawn Davis, a photographer who captures panoramas of the night sky. “It’s just mind-blowingly spectacular how many stars there are.”
In 2021 Prineville Reservoir State Park in Central Oregon was designated an International Dark Sky Park by the International Dark-Sky Association. That designation, shared by just under 200 other sites worldwide, celebrates the park’s exceptionally low levels of light pollution. “It’s an effort to educate people who live in these areas that they have a resource that’s worth preserving,” says Bill Kowalik, who serves as chair of the Oregon chapter of the International Dark-Sky Association.
There’s work underway to protect the dark skies above other Oregon State Parks, too, including Wallowa Lake State Park and Cottonwood Canyon State Park in Eastern Oregon. There’s a lot of grassroots organizing involved in the process, says Davis, and committed individuals can really make a difference. People do everything from advocating for good outdoor lighting policies to rehabbing existing lighting installations to doing outreach about the importance of dark skies. “It takes a village,” says Davis.
Visitors can help preserve dark skies by following simple steps. If you’re walking around after sundown, consider using a flashlight that emits low-energy red light rather than white light. (Some smartphones can be put into red-light mode by changing a few settings.) And minimize sources of light whenever possible. If you’re camping, you’ll want to enjoy the night sky rather than artificial light anyway, says Davis. “Does your vehicle need to have a lot of external lights on it? Do you need to have a roaring campfire, or can you have a mellow campfire?”
Your actions will help preserve the splendor of the night sky, and they’ll also help animals, too — some birds migrate at night, guided by the stars and moon, and bright lights can confuse them. The Audubon Society of Portland hosts a yearly Lights Out event that encourages building owners and residents to turn off unnecessary outdoor lighting at night when birds are migrating. Check out the events happening under Oregon’s pristine starry skies during and after National Dark Sky Week, April 22-30, 2022.
Stargaze With a Naturalist Guide
Visitors seeking a guided tour of Oregon’s dark skies can take part in an excursion that includes stargazing. A variety of adventures like snowshoeing and canoeing are available across the state: Wanderlust Tours, based in Bend, and Go Wild: American Adventures, based in Baker City, both take guests to wilderness areas at night. Expeditions that include time to take in the night sky are a special experience, says Courtney Braun, a co-owner and naturalist guide at Wanderlust Tours. Guests are often astonished at the sheer number of stars visible from the dark skies of the Cascade Mountains, she says. “It can really be quite impressive once you get away from the lights of town.”
If you’re keen to get a closer look at cosmic sights, there are also opportunities to look through a telescope at one of Oregon’s observatories. Both Sunriver Nature Center & Observatory and Pine Mountain Observatory, located near Bend, welcome visitors. (Tip: If you can’t visit in the evening, try for midday – you’ll get to see the magnificent solar flares of the sun by telescope.) Regularly scheduled star parties at Sunriver Nature Center & Observatory allow visitors to get up close and personal with the night sky and learn from knowledgeable staff astronomers.
There are many ways to enjoy — and protect — Oregon’s air. Help out in a way that works for you, and don’t forget to take a deep breath!