A late-winter sun slowly melted snow in the mossy Coast Range forest, as buds began to emerge from the trees. A sense of renewal was in the air in the Tillamook State Forest.
Nowhere was that feeling more apparent than at the Tillamook Forest Center, an interpretive center and interactive museum nestled into the forest, which reopened to the public on Friday, roughly three years after closing due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Denise Berkshire, interim director of the center, took a break from her busy morning Friday to step out into the sunshine beside the Wilson River. A group of students on a field trip were gathered nearby, and she was anticipating an energetic afternoon. Was she excited about being back open?
“That would be an understatement,” she said. “It has been a long, challenging three years.”
The only staff member who worked at the forest center before the closure, Berkshire was also on the team that designed the building in the first place. She said all the attributes that made it so special – the hands-on exhibits, theater, costumes and toys – also made it a risky place to gather during the pandemic.
With COVID cases declining over the last year, the center has been slowly working on reopening to the public. Berkshire said difficulties in hiring delayed their big day, as did maintenance issues that had built up while the building was closed, from weeds on the trail to moss in the plaza and a lot of dust in the museum itself.
“Just like if you’re cleaning your house, if you don’t do anything for three years, there’s a fair amount of work to do to get ready to open the doors again,” she said.
Visitors returning to the forest center will find little changed since it closed three years ago. The same exhibits are there, the stately bridge behind the building still leads over the Wilson River, and the fire lookout tower still stands out front.
Inside the museum, Luke Parsons, the interpretation, education and volunteer coordinator, strolled through exhibits about the infamous Tillamook Burn, the Indigenous communities who originally lived in the forest, wildlife, the logging industry and a new traveling exhibit about Black loggers called “Timber Culture,” borrowed from the Maxville Heritage Interpretive Center in Joseph.
Those exhibits and other attractions the Tillamook Forest Center has to offer are expected to draw some 60,000 visitors this spring and summer, Parsons said, as well as upwards of 6,000 schoolchildren between now and next fall.
Tyler Kotchik, a special education teacher at Joseph Gale Elementary School in Forest Grove, helped chaperone a group of fourth graders from his school at the center Friday. He said the kids were busy putting on skits about the history of the forest but would soon break for lunch and a scavenger hunt around the museum. Between the exhibits, activities and surrounding nature, the center was a great place for a field trip, he said.
“The people here have put on a really good atmosphere for our kids to learn and experience something different than they might not have done before,” Kotchik said. “It’s really nice and the center in here is really cool.”
Parsons, who has also done work for the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, said this is the fifth visitor center he’s helped reopen since the pandemic. Last summer, he helped with reopening the Whale Watching Center, Cape Foulweather, Beverly Beach and Yaquina Bay Lighthouse.
Lessons from those reopening processes, like new cleaning procedures, training new staff, and adjusting to virtual communication, helped in the Tillamook Forest Center, he said.
“It really was sort of relaunching a visitor center from the beginning,” Parsons said. “We’re relearning some of those things that we knew a few years ago, but all in all it’s kind of like riding a bike.”
The Oregon Department of Forestry said the Tillamook Forest Center will initially be open with “limited operations,” open only Friday to Sunday, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. On May 3, the center will be back to its old schedule, open Wednesday to Sunday with the same hours. The center will stay open until 5 p.m. from Memorial Day to Labor Day, after which it will revert back to the shorter hours through the fall.
As in years past, the center will be closed from December through February, giving staff time to work on projects at the facility, officials said.
For nearly two decades, the Tillamook Forest Center has been a popular destination for families, hikers and history buffs. The 13,500-square-foot building, which cost $10.7 million to construct, first opened in 2006.
The forest center is off Oregon 6 between Forest Grove and Tillamook. When the forest center is open, it also serves as a major trailhead for the Wilson River Trail, a 24.3-mile hiking trail that runs through the Coast Range forest.
Now, it will once again be a hub of activity in the Tillamook State Forest, just in time for spring.
“It’s a great day, we have students here again, the sun is shining and it’s really incredible for us to be able to connect people with state forests again,” Berkshire said. “I think we’re just at another chapter and we have a lot of new energy here.”
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