A path winds around a hill in the center of the landscape of a winery

Immersive tour groups are helping Oregon heal from natural disaster—and trying to prevent the next one

IT’S A SATURDAY MORNING, and I’m slogging down a muddy trail in running tights and a pink knit cap, a foot shorter and 50 pounds lighter than the other volunteers, all of us wrestling wheelbarrows full of mulch in a late-spring Oregon rainstorm. I dump my load down beside Ash Creek – a tributary of the state’s mighty Willamette River – then fill my big blue bucket and march off in soaked Asics sneakers to spread a thick ring of bark chips around a tender sapling of red-flowering currant.

The currant, along with the maples I and three other volunteers are mulching, is one of the native species planted recently to crowd out non-natives along the creek. Ash Creek provides vital habitat for fish and wildlife, as well as floodwater storage, near the tiny town of Independence. The bark chips we’re spreading will protect new plantings from summer heat domes similar to the one in 2022 which – made more intense because of climate change – fried delicate natives previously planted along the creek bank. 

Aubrey Cloud, assistant project manager of Luckiamute Watershed Council, shows us how to identify plants by examining their leaf shape and arrangement on the stem so we won’t waste mulch on non-natives that haven’t yet been completely eradicated. He tells us that native plants provide habitat for local birds, butterflies, and bees; in addition, their deep roots increase the soil’s ability to store water, which helps to reduce polluted stormwater runoff and flooding.

The sprinkle of rain on our heads becomes a steady downpour in which we all work until our hair and clothes are drenched, and mud streaks the parts of us left uncovered in the dank morning. 

I’m filthy. My teeth are chattering. And I think: I paid for this.

Tourism: extractive vs. regenerative

I’M PARTICIPATING IN what the tourism industry has lately dubbed “regenerative travel” – a vacation combining upscale lodging and meals in locally-owned venues with outdoor adventure and education about a region’s land, people, and culture. Sometimes, regenerative trips include a hands-on service project overseen by regional nonprofit partners. For example, Hands-Up Holidays, based in the Bay Area, offers tourists the opportunity to help renovate a New Orleans-based home damaged by hurricanes, combined with guided city tours, bayou kayaking, and private Cajun cooking classes.

In 2019, 9.5 million U.S. jobs intersected in some way with the travel and tourism industry. Think recreation, transportation, lodging, restaurants, art, entertainment, and education – all of which represented $1.9 trillion dollars in economic yield before COVID-19 threw travel into a tailspin. Fact is, when a pandemic (and its associated inflation) isn’t raging, people will spend money to travel, and regenerative tourism, with its promise to sink funds into a truly local, environmentally conscious economy, appeals to people like me who hope that the hours I spend volunteering offset the fossil fuel I burned to get to a distant location.

The overnight adventure I’ve booked in Independence represents a partnership between a boutique hotel, a locally-owned winery, a watershed council, a Portland-based kayaking outfitter, and a nonprofit devoted to protecting white oaks. It feels more noble than a trip I took to Mexico a few years ago; my husband and I booked it on the fly as over-busy parents of a 10-year-old and found ourselves snorkeling in a private lagoon behind our expat-owned AirBnb, coming up for air to eat at expat-owned restaurants and lounge on exclusive beaches. We learned almost nothing, and we gave little back to the indigenous Mexican community aside from a few pesos at a taqueria. 

That type of travel is “extractive tourism,” says Kieron Wilde, founder of First Nature Tours, which offers regenerative trips around the Pacific Northwest including the one I’m on. “You’re just going to a place and taking things away,” he explains. “You’re not really interacting with people there; you’re just having them wait on you. You’re not learning about their culture, and you’re getting a watered-down, performative version of what’s truly unique about the place you’re visiting.”

“People want to know the truth about a place.”

Kieron Wilde, founder of First Nature Tours

Wilde grew up on a farm in rural Wisconsin where he and his mother and brother had a vegetable garden and raised poultry and had only a wood stove for heat. “I’ve been an eco warrior since I was a kid,” he says. “I was always Captain Planet; I was going to save the Earth. I was very aware of nature and how getting your hands in nature is super powerful for healing and for mental health.”

He launched First Nature in 2014, offering luxury tours all over the Pacific Northwest. But the Covid pandemic and the subsequent financial hit forced him to reevaluate his work and purpose. He felt like he was losing touch with the tour guide he’d been post-university– a leader committed to sustainability and preservation of wild lands. When, in 2021, an Oregon-based environmental nonprofit approached him with grant money to develop a regenerative tour supporting local businesses and trail recovery efforts in response to the Holiday Farm Fire, he jumped at the chance to design a weekend adventure combining outdoor recreation with education, community-building, and environmental restoration.

“This is the only way I can stay in tourism, to be honest with you,” Wilde says. “I need to make regenerative tourism a viable component of what I’m doing with my life in order for it to be sustainable.”

He believes that once travelers experience an authentic adventure – an experience that immerses them in culture and landscape and invites them into deep interactions with residents, they’re transformed. “They’re no longer satisfied with the theme-park version of a destination,” he says. “People want to know the truth about a place.” 

A person stands with paddles next to a row of kayaks alongside a river; a parked trucked reads "eNRG Kayaking 503-772-1122"
Photo by Melissa Hart for The Sunday Long Read
Two people in kayaks paddle down a river, with trees in the horizon
Photo by Melissa Hart for The Sunday Long Read

The truth about the Willamette River is that it’s lovely. After mulching and a picnic lunch of sandwiches and organic granola bars and fruit, I’m paddling on a guided kayak tour (raindrops pelting down all the while) alongside Eric Carlson, a Willamette Riverkeepers guide and, as “Seymore Gulls,” the author of Neighborhood Birding 101: An Identification Guide to Washington, Oregon & Northern California’s Most Common Birds

As we drift under billowing gray clouds, Carlson points out different species of swallows swooping across the water in search of mosquitoes and gnats. “See how that one has a forked tail?” he says. “That’s a barn swallow. There’s a violet green swallow, and there’s a cliff swallow. And look – there’s a flock of cedar waxwings in that tree!”

I consider myself an amateur birder, but I had no idea there were so many species of swallows. I watch brown and yellow waxwings with black masks and rakish topknots and feel suddenly connected to this body of water that flows through the state I’ve lived in for two decades. I begin to understand on a gut level why it’s vital to protect tiny Ash Creek. 

I look down at my filthy fingernails and mud-stained sneakers, and I’m grateful that I got to play a small part in that protection, not just for plants and birds but for fish, insects, and others. But can regenerative tourism actually mitigate the effects of climate change on wild lands and in marginalized communities? Or is it just a sexy phrase designed to appeal to those with expendable income and a desire to do a bit of good in the world while enjoying a sweet vacation? 

‘A sense of urgency’

HERE’S A HARD TRUTH about regenerative travel – it earns Wilde’s company little, if any, money. In a perfect world, he says, travel organizations would come to him with grant money enabling him to design sustainable adventures in their region. He and staff members are also researching Pacific Northwest nonprofits with the ability to host educational volunteer projects. The Wildes are thinking about setting up their own nonprofit, as well, with the ability to offer educational and volunteer opportunities to travel clients. “If we could get our own nonprofits set up and get a grant funnel to offset costs, we could make these trips almost free,” Kieron Wilde explains. “It’s a very timely thing. There’s a sense of urgency to this.”

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He’s referring, of course, to climate change and the impetus to connect travelers to vulnerable lands and cultures. He wants people to understand on a gut level how the actions of a privileged few leave others to deal with increasing threats from wildfires, hurricanes, drought, and other natural disasters.

He hopes some of the same corporations responsible for carbon emissions might help to propel regenerative travel into the spotlight by eschewing airline travel and instead offering more localized tours to their employees as team-building events. “All it takes,” Wilde says, “is one regional manager to say, ‘You know, screw it, I’m not going to go on this off site to San Diego, and spend all my money there. I’m going to stay here in Oregon, and I’m going to take my team out to Independence, and we’re going to go do some restoration work. We’re going to have our meetings, and then we’re going to have some fun kayaking and learn about the ecology in our own backyard.’”

Immersion for the sake of immersion

WILDE IS LEERY of tour operators that arrange for hotels to donate a percentage of travelers’ lodging fees to the local community, then label a trip “regenerative.” There should be more to it than that, he says – an educational element and an immersive aspect that allow travelers a hands-on opportunity to leave a place slightly better than they found it. 

“The important work to be done here isn’t just having someone who can afford to throw money at a problem,” he explains. “It’s getting people out doing the work and feeling that sense of stewardship for the land. That’s a lot more rewarding than the momentary gratification of writing a check.

Simply asking someone for money to help with restoration work seldom answers the “why” that inspired that work, he explains. “For example, we want to help mitigate the damage from forest fires. But why are we doing that? What’s the bigger picture? Why shouldn’t someone put their money elsewhere? People understand that a lot better when they’re out there in the field or interacting with people who have those answers and can shed light on the issue.” 

“It’s getting people out doing the work and feeling that sense of stewardship for the land. That’s a lot more rewarding than the momentary gratification of writing a check.”

Kieron Wilde, founder of First Nature Tours

James Connor Bascue works as a financial analyst in Portland, Oregon, where First Nature Tours is based. He was initially skeptical of the idea of paying to volunteer while on a vacation. But on one of the company’s inaugural regenerative tours, he helped restore vulnerable wilderness trails for hikers and mountain bikers and found himself sold on Wilde’s model of volunteering in the morning and adventuring outdoors in the afternoon with the promise of a great meal afterward.

“Sometimes, it feels good to get your hands dirty,” he says.

Bascue participated in the Independence trip that I went on, along with two other young, super-fit men. We met in the mud over wet wheelbarrows full of mulch and found ourselves laughing and comparing notes about the native plants we were tending. Bascue believes the rainy, cold weather helped to create camaraderie between travelers who’d been strangers to one another. “It deepens the sense of connection in going through a shared ‘hardship,’” he says. 

I’d add that working toward the common goals of mulching plants and paddling a river made it easier to be solo on this trip; I doubt I’d feel as comfortable alone on a cruise ship or, for that matter, one of First Nature’s luxury tours. Muddy and exhausted in the service of nature is my happy place. 

Fighting climate-fueled disaster with travel

BEGINNING LABOR DAY 2020, the Holiday Farm Fire, named after the Holiday Farm RV Resort near the origin of the blaze,burned over 173,000 acres in the McKenzie River corridor 156 miles southeast of Portland, destroying 500 homes and offices in multiple small towns. 

Tourist dollars sustain this forested area – mountain bikers, hikers, river rafters, runners, backpackers, and skiers flock to the sparkling green river and adjacent trails to marvel at old-growth Douglas firs and cedars, at lava fields and waterfalls. They shop and dine and lodge overnight at local establishments. But with mountains a blackened wasteland and much of the 26-mile McKenzie River Trail closed to recreation, life looked bleak for many of the region’s residents. 

Alyssa Brownlee co-owns Horse Creek Lodge & Outfitters with her husband Gary. The night of the fire, she climbed through her elderly neighbor’s window to wake her up and get her to safety. “It’s a testament to how tight-knit our community is that we all knew who doesn’t have a cell phone, and we know all the people who live on the dead end roads,” she says. 

“People ran down those roads, whipped out their chain saws to cut branches away so other people could drive out. Oh my god, we would have lost hundreds, if not thousands of people. But we got everybody out.” 

Her family were among the lucky ones, she notes. Neighbors all around them were displaced, and some continue to be displaced because of issues with insurance and lumber and worker shortages. Many lost their businesses, and thus, their livelihoods.  

Enter regenerative tourism. After Travel Oregon awarded $21,313 in grant money to Cascade Volunteers – a nonprofit serving the Willamette Forest – First Nature launched the McKenzie Regenerative Tour. Travelers stay at Horse Creek Lodge and spend two mornings planting trees or helping to restore trails. In the afternoons, they take a guided mountain bike or rafting tour, then dine at the locally-owned Obsidian Grill before returning to the lodge. 

Often, the Brownlees build a bonfire at night and invite participants to join them for music and storytelling. They play guitar and sing John Prine songs and answer visitors’ questions about the Holiday Farm Fire. “It’s very touching to see people traveling from such far distances to help this community that they maybe knew nothing about,” Alyssa Brownlee says. “We live in a beautiful place, but I think we forget. Participating in regenerative tourism projects gives us an opportunity to see our area through fresh eyes.”

She adores the regenerative model for a number of reasons. “It helps to rebuild trails that have been damaged, but it also helps to rebuild the economy and support our local businesses,” she says, “And it gives visitors an opportunity to learn about why natural disasters happen, and how we can prevent them or deal with them in the future.” 

A broader network

SERVICE TRIPS aren’t new. In the 1950s, Sierra Club began to offer outings that combined nature-based excursions with hands-on volunteering. Earthwatch has been pairing researchers and volunteers to work on environmental sustainability projects since 1971. Lodging with these organizations runs the gamut from bunk beds in dormitory-style rooms to cots in rustic cabins — bring your own sleeping bag. Food is served cafeteria style or cooked over a campfire, and participants may be asked to cook and clean up after themselves, regardless of the thousands of dollars they’ve contributed to participate in a project. 

It takes a particular type of person to commit to such a trip; for the most part, you must be fairly rugged, especially when devoid of creature comforts. That’s leaving out an entire demographic of travelers who don’t mind paying to get their hands dirty and their feet wet in the service of nature, but who also want to spend the night in a beautiful hotel with a decent mattress and their own bathroom, plus a gourmet meal or two. 

From Canada to Australia, indigenous tour guides are beginning to offer packages that immerse tourists in cultural and wilderness experiences. The Jamestown S’Klallam tribe plays a major role in Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula Regenerative tour, designed by Global Family Travels founder and CEO Jennifer Spatz. 

The tour invites participants to learn about salmon habitat recovery in key ecosystems, as well as the importance of the fish to the Jamestown S’Klallam tribe. Tourists volunteer with either the North Olympic Salmon Coalition or Elwha River Restoration, studying the role of native plants in maintaining the health of both waterways and salmon, then take time out to hike and enjoy a self-guided totem tour and Northwest-inspired dinner featuring locally caught salmon. It’s a family-friendly trip, ideal for parents who love to learn alongside their kids the way Spatz’ parents studied alongside her when she was growing up. 

A stack of plastic buckets sit in a wheelbarrow in between two piles of mulch on the grass in front of trees
Photo by Melissa Hart for The Sunday Long Read
Several shovels sit in a wheelbarrow; in the background, two people walk through the grass
Photo by Melissa Hart for The Sunday Long Read
A piece of wire mesh is wrapped around two sticks, one black and one bamboo, in the middle of a field, with a treeline at the horizon
Photo by Melissa Hart for The Sunday Long Read

Spatz grew up with a father in the foreign service and lived in several different countries as a child, learning about each new culture alongside her parents. She designs domestic and international regenerative tours for families, partnering with nonprofits in each destination to ensure an adventure based on both the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals and her own three principals of “Learn, Serve, Immerse.” 

Spatz explains that when we step outside of our comfort zone on a vacation, we learn about ourselves, as well as about the surrounding community and culture and the land. “You’re not just sitting on a bus and learning about one thing,” she explains. “You’re learning from people involved in local nonprofit organizations and supporting people who live in and around your destination in an authentic way.” 

In Seattle, she invites tourists to learn about, and volunteer with, Yes Farm – part of the Black Farmers Collective. Participants take a walking tour that starts at Danny Woo Community Garden in the city’s Chinatown-International District to learn about the connections between food access, environmental justice, urban farming, community building, and possible solutions to climate change. Then they spend an hour volunteering on the farm tucked beside the interstate in the middle of the city.

Ray Williams is Yes Farm’s director. He appreciates the opportunity to partner with a tour company because it allows visitors to see an important section of Seattle that wasn’t originally designed for tourism. People on the farm tell travelers stories about how they got into urban farming and illuminate Asian and Black history in the city. 

“We get a little compensation, and tourists end up doing a little volunteering on the farm. Depending on what we’re doing, and the season, they’re weeding or planting,” he explains. “It’s a chance to get their hands dirty, and I hope that in learning about this urban space that helps the community, maybe they’ll go back to their community and start looking at similar opportunities.”

Does regenerative tourism have a future?

NUMEROUS STUDIES have shown that humans immersed in nature reap positive physical and mental health benefits. And research on volunteering shows that working in service to someone or something decreases our anxiety and increases happiness. Talking with strangers can give us yet another endorphin boost. Mulching native saplings, touring a winery’s white oak savannah dining, singing and drinking beer around a bonfire with new friends– it’s all good. With this in mind, why wouldn’t healthy, outgoing, able-bodied travelers pay to volunteer outdoors a few hours, then fraternize on Class IV rapids and mountain biking trails? 

Regardless of regenerative travel’s rewards, some travelers balk at paying for a tour package that requires hours of hands-on volunteering. And some, even if they’ve shelled out several hundred dollars for an experience, may cancel if the weather isn’t ideal. Three people scheduled to do the Independence adventure with me must have looked out the window at the gray, rainy day and gone back to bed; they just never showed up. Ray Williams of Black Farmers Collective has noticed a similar trend. Did tourists not get the memo about the Pacific Northwest’s legendary precipitation?

“We’ve had some success with some of the tours,” he says, “but we ended up rescheduling some of them because if the weather was bad, people wouldn’t do it. I guess that’s the travel agency experience if you’re offering outside tours, right? Families on vacation want to feel comfortable, so if they don’t want to go out in the rain, they’re going to cancel.”

“Fall in love with a place. Fight for that place. Launch a larger project about the self and the world.”

— David Gessner, author of “My Green Manifesto

As Wilde points out, if regenerative tourism has a future, travelers must change their perspective about what it means to take a vacation. We’re used to paying for food and lodging and tour guides; we’re not used to offering up physical labor to a nonprofit in potentially wet and cold (or hot and dry) weather as part of the exchange. Wilde says this is the challenge, “marketing to figure out how to put the spotlight on everything you’re getting–a jam-packed, awesome value and a private tour, plus a volunteer opportunity which allows you to give [your time].” 

He’s banking on the idea that outfitters like First Nature Tours and Global Family Travels will start a chain reaction among tour operators and travelers. “I’m hoping people will start to think of tourism in a different way, that they’ll start to look at the landscape in a different way, and the ways in which they interact with the world in a different way,” he explains. 

Ray Williams at Yes Farm agrees that regenerative tourism requires a mind shift for travelers. Anyone can visit Seattle and see the Space Needle and Pike Place Market. It takes a bit more effort to land on authentic local experiences such as the tour featuring Black Farmers Collective and what Williams calls the “ethnic history of Seattle.” 

“You get to see the backside of the city, a section not designed for tourism,” he explains. “You’re in our space and thinking about how it connects with you personally, and you’re supporting us a little bit by volunteering. Then, you go home and realize, ‘‘I went to a city and saw something really interesting.’”

Engagement with people doing good work

WE FINISH OUR kayaking tour of the Willamette near Salem and climb into First Nature’s biodiesel-powered Mercedes Sprinter, all of us soaked to the skin. My shoes have been sodden for six straight hours. 

An hour later, I’m hiking through the mud again in dry boots — this time on a tour of Left Coast Estate’s pinot and chardonnay vineyards with Dan Vizzini of the local nonprofit The Oak Accord. 

Photo by Cameron Wilde/First Nature

Wilde invited him to join us; he works in conjunction with Left Coast and other wineries in the area to preserve vulnerable white oak woodlands and savannas in the area. “The white oak is a service tree,” he tells us, stopping in front of one of the craggy-barked, sprawling trees. “It offers everything the animals and birds of this area need. It’s good for wine, as well.” White oaks can survive both droughts and wildfires; like other trees, they sequester carbon. But only three percent of white oak habitat remains in the Willamette Valley because of development, fire suppression, and conversion to agricultural land. 

Over wood-fired pizza and wine at a long table in Left Coast’s tasting room, Vizzini tells us about the Accord’s work in helping to preserve these trees. I’m grateful for the information, particularly because I have three largely-ignored white oaks in my backyard. And I’m full of appreciation for how, in just 12 hours, I’ve gained thought-provoking insights from a watershed employee, a local naturalist, and now, a white oak expert.

These types of regenerative travel projects could be happening all over the world, Wilde points out. “At every destination, everybody’s got these people, these organizations working in their own silos, right next to where people are recreating, where people are visiting,” he adds. “Plenty of those people who are visiting would love to engage with those people doing this good work.” 

A steward in your own backyard

WILDE’S COMMITMENT to local land and community preservation reminds me of something Boston author David Gessner says in his book trailer for My Green Manifesto, a memoir about kayaking the Charles River with environmental planner Dan Driscoll. In the trailer, Gessner emerges from a tributary muddy and bare-chested, then dons a jacket. “They told me I need bullet points,” he says, looking earnestly into the camera. “Fall in love with a place. Fight for that place. Launch a larger project about the self and the world.” 

Even if regenerative tourism isn’t the key to fighting climate change, my own overnight adventure inspired a benefit that I didn’t anticipate when I set out on that rainy Saturday morning on Ash Creek. It’s a benefit that Ray Williams of Black Farmers Collective hopes for, that Alyssa Brownlee of Horse Creek Lodge recognized as soon as she welcomed the first group of regenerative tourists from First Nature. 

“This type of travel gives people a connection with the land,” she says. “The hope is that they’ll go back to their own backyard and feel a connection to it.” 

I live on a third of an acre, where my husband and I have several large vegetable gardens. But we’ve largely ignored our Doug firs and fruit trees, our native plants and our oaks. The weekend after I return from my regenerative tour is rainy and gray . . . no surprise there. It’s the type of weekend I’d usually spend holed up in my home office working or watching movies on the couch with my teen. But now, I look out the window at my trees and shrubs and remember last June’s heat dome, during which temperatures rose to 113. 

I put on a pair of overalls, pull on my heavy rain boots, and grab a wheelbarrow. 

This story was made possible by the support of Sunday Long Read subscribers and publishing partner Ruth Ann Harnisch. Edited by Peter Bailey-Wells. Designed by Anagha Srikanth.

Melissa Hart (she/her)

Melissa Hart is an author, most recently, of “Better with Books: 500 Diverse Books to Ignite Empathy and Encourage Self-Acceptance in Tweens and Teens.” She lives in Eugene, OR.

Five Regenerative Tours to Check Out

Rwanda Women & Empowerment, A Learn, Serve & Immerse Adventure

Feb. 2-11, 2023

Join Global Family Travels to explore Rwanda and learn about its history and culture, as well as experiencing and supporting firsthand the country’s female-led NGOs with their goals of gender equity and empowerment.

Peru Mothers and Daughters Trip

July 2-9, 2023

Mothers and daughters around the world are invited to join Good Travel to explore Peruvian culture on an adventure that benefits the local environment, community, and economy. 

Chincoteague Service Learning: Preserving Barrier Island Environments

Oct. 22-27, 2023

The venerable organization Road Scholar invites participants to visit Chincoteague Island and learn about the local history and environment, then help to maintain woodland trails, preserve historic sites, and remove trash from undeveloped beaches.

Protecting Whooping Cranes and Coastal Habitats in Texas

Dates vary, Winter 2023

Join Earthwatch researchers in the Texas Gulf Coast saltmarsh to monitor the habits of endangered whooping cranes and study how they’re affected by environmental changes. Collect plant, soil, and water samples and conduct research on the amount of the birds’ preferred foods. 

Hawai’i Volunteer Program

Dates vary, throughout 2023

Join GIVE staff on a 9-day trip to the Big Island and work to rehabilitate native forest, remove marine debris, and work on regenerative farming projects. Learn about sacred lands, culture, and history with indigenous leaders in the region.