Regenerative tourists leave Oregon better than they found it

Regenerative tourism combines vacation, restoration, helps restore Oregon’s wildfire burn areas

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — When traveling through a forested area, it’s always a good idea to leave it the way you found it. But what if you could leave it better than you found it? 

That’s what First Nature Treks and Tours is hoping to accomplish with its regenerative tourism trips in parts of Oregon and Washington. 

First Nature Tours guest plants a tree in the McKenzie River Corridor. Photo courtesy First Nature Tours

“Regenerative tourism or regenerative travel is kind of a newer concept in the industry,” explained Kieron Wilde, owner and founder of First Nature Treks and Tours. “What we’re trying to do here with these programs we’re doing in Oregon is a lot more about community-led projects… We create an overall tour package around those experiences.” 

Like many people who work in the travel industry, the pandemic slowed Wilde’s tour operation to a crawl in 2020. He had a lot of time to rethink his business and when the Holiday Farm Fire devastated the Willamette National Forest, he contacted organizations in Lane County, Travel Oregon, and Cascade Volunteers to see how he could help. 

“It kind of just was a perfect storm. I guess in a way we had all these folks interested in this kind of project all at the same time, which created an environment for collaboration to create a really awesome experience,” he said. 

During the summer of 2021, Wilde and First Nature Tours are taking groups on trips in the McKenzie River Corridor where they’ll not only experience fun recreational activities, but also spend time restoring the national forest. 

Wilde explained the three-day trip starts with picking up tourists in Portland and taking them down to the Eugene area and the McKenzie River. They then usually spend the first afternoon mountain biking. The next morning they’ll spend a few hours repairing trails and replanting trees in the Willamette National Forest. They’ll then go rafting in the afternoon, spend the evening around a campfire, and head out the next morning. 

A First Nature Tours group on a rafting trip on the McKenzie River. Photo courtesy First Nature Tours

“It’s a lot of fun and even the work is a lot of fun for most people,” Wilde said. 

First Nature Tours has already taken groups to the McKenzie River Corridor twice and Wilde said they’ve had excellent feedback from guests so far. 

“It’s been really great and people love the opportunity to have that feel-good moment where you know you’re making a difference and you know you’re helping out these communities and you’re helping out the forest,” he said. 

Wilde, a former ecologist, said he also enjoys the opportunity to explain the value of fire. He said a lot of times, people on his trips have a very negative understanding of wildfires and the damage they do, but taking them out into the woods gives him a chance to explain how a fire can help renew the forest. 

A First Nature Tours guest pours water on a tree seedling in the McKenzie River Corridor. Photo courtesy First Nature Tours

Nature First has done a bit of volunteer work, like beach clean-ups, during trips in the past, but nothing as immersive or community-led as the regenerative tours the company is offering now. He hopes regenerative tourism is a trend that will stick around for a while. 

“I want people to go somewhere and look for opportunities to actually not just leave it untouched and be non-extractive, but also look for ways to make it better, so you can have that sense of stewardship and come back later and say, ‘Hey, I helped with this trail,” he said. 

The Willamette National Forest trip isn’t the only place First Nature Tours is conducting regenerative work. It’s also taking groups to the Olympic Peninsula where it will help restore salmon habitat. Wilde also said they’d also like to do work in the parts of the Columbia River Gorge that have been impacted by fires. 

All the available destinations and more information about regenerative tourism are available on the First Nature Tours website.