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PCT NEWS

Forest Service Backpedals on Fees for the Central Cascades; Permits, Quotas Still in Effect

Apparently, 13,000 citizens raising their voice in objection to a government action gets noticed. The Forest Service has announced that the proposed fees for accessing Oregon’s Central Cascades wilderness areas—Three Sisters, Mount Washington and Mount Jefferson—has been scrapped and will not go into effect in 2020. However, hikers will still be required to obtain special limited-use wilderness permits for both dayhiking and overnight backpacking. 

Wilderness Fee Plan Scrapped​

For the last two years, the Willamette and Deschutes National Forests have been working to implement a new sustainability plan—the Central Cascades Wilderness Strategies Project—that limits access to Central Oregon’s wilderness areas. Its intent is to reduce trail crowding and damaging impacts resulting from the increase of wilderness users in recent years. The plan was proposed to the public in two stages, in fall 2018 and fall 2019. 

The first stage established new backcountry access limits with the creation of a new wilderness permit and quota system. This would put daily limits on the number of hikers permitted into the Three Sisters, Mount Washington and Mount Jefferson wilderness areas. It would apply to dayhikers on some of the most popular trails, and to overnight backpackers and PCT section-hikers on all trails. (PCT thru-hikers were granted an exemption, with some restrictions.) This plan was met with many concerns among the hiking community, who opposed such drastic limits to wilderness access. Most notably, it would have a striking impact on PCT section-hikers (those who do not qualify for a PCTA-issued long-distance permit), who would see significant restrictions to access, and would lose much-needed flexibility.

The second stage of the plan involved implementing a new wilderness fee structure that would impose a per-person access fee for some dayhikers, and a complicated per-person, per-night, per-group fee for all overnight backpackers and section-hikers. While the proposed fees were modest for dayhikers and weekend backpackers, long-distance hikers were looking at potentially exorbitant costs to cross these wilderness areas. The fee proposal also raised real concerns about the barriers it would impose on local, low-income and younger wilderness users, as well as how permit funds would be used to enhance and increase wilderness experiences. Here at PCT: Oregon, we were strongly opposed to the fee proposal for many reasons.

This month, in an unexpected—and favorable—turn of events, the Forest Service has withdrawn its wilderness fee proposal. When asked why the sudden reversal, Matt Peterson, one of the project leads for the Willamette National Forest, explained, “The Forest is currently focused on the implementation of the new permit system. We’ll be monitoring these areas to see how the new access limits improves the situation on trails and in the backcountry. It’s possible we may revisit the fee idea in the future if the need arises, but for now there will be no new fees to access these wilderness areas.” When asked if the nearly 13,000 public comments the Forest received had any bearing on the reversal, Peterson could not comment.

While this is welcome news that wilderness access to the Three Sisters, Mount Washington and Mount Jefferson areas will not require potentially costly permit fees, the limited-access permit plan is still going into effect in spring 2020. This will still require wilderness users to obtain limited-entry permits for some dayhiking trails, as well as for all overnight trail users. These permits will only be available through the recreation.gov website, and will cost $1/person for day-use trails, and $6/group for all overnight access. (See below How to Get Your Permit)

Changes to Trail Quotas​

In another fortuitous development, Peterson indicated that the Forest Service is also revising some of the daily trailhead quotas upward. “We recognized that when we scrapped the Skyline Permit proposal, we failed to reallocate these daily entries back into the main pool. As such, we’re increasing the daily quota limits for PCT entry at the Irish–Taylor and Breitenbush trailheads, as well as a few other connecting trails.”

This is good news, especially for PCT section-hikers. As initially proposed in the project’s Final Draft Decision, there would only be a handful of PCT entries permitted per day. As of this posting, Peterson could not share the exact number of increased daily entries, but indicated that it would be a substantial number in consideration of the section-hiking community. We’ll be watching closely for this information to be made public, and will post an update as soon as it’s available.

The fly in the ointment however, is that these overnight wilderness permits will still be subject to a caveat buried in the original Environmental Assessment. This states that the “daily” permit quota will be contingent on previous days’ entries. For example:

  • A trailhead has a “daily” quota of three entries; i.e., Irish–Taylor for PCT northbound
  • Three individuals/groups all obtain permits for entry on the same day
  • Each individual/group requests eight days to cross all three wilderness areas
  • No more permits will be issued for eight days until those groups have exited the area

When questioned about the barrier this would present to PCT section-hikers’ ability to enter and traverse these wilderness areas, Peterson acknowledged that it does create a challenge. “We’re hopeful that by increasing the daily quota at PCT entry points that it will reduce barriers for section-hiker access,” Peterson explained. “It is something we will be monitoring closely, and will make adjustments as needed.” 

How to Get Your Permit

All wilderness permits for the Three Sisters, Mount Jefferson and Mount Washington areas will be made available through the recreation.gov website. Approximately 40% of each trailhead’s daily permit allotment will be available to reserve in advance. For the 2020 hiking season, advance permits will become available on April 7. The remaining 60% of daily permits will be made available up to one week in advance of each entry date. While there is no cost for the permits, the portal will charge an administrative fee of $1/person for dayhiking trails and $6/group for overnight users. Permits can also be obtained in person at regional ranger stations during normal operating hours, but fees still apply.

Five steps to get your wilderness permit:

  1. Visit recreation.gov
  2. Search for the name of the trailhead you wish to use
  3. Select your desired entry and exit dates
  4. Enter your personal information and pay the administrative fee
  5. Print your permit and carry it with you on your hike

Individuals will be limited to five (5) overnight permit reservations at a time. There currently is no limit set for dayhiking trails. PCT section-hikers seeking to cross these wilderness areas will need to select both an entry and exit date for their permit. The southern entry/exit point is Irish–Taylor Lakes; the northern entry/exit point is Breitenbush. The total distance between the two is approximately 110 miles. Section-hikers will need to factor their entry date into their larger hiking plan, as wilderness entry will not be permitted until the date indicated on their permit. They will also need to exit the area on or before the indicated exit date. This is important to keep in mind if planning any side trips along the way, or resupply breaks at Elk Lake or Sisters.

This summer, Forest Service rangers will be patrolling the trails and backcountry to ensure permit compliance. If you encounter a ranger on your hike and they ask to see your permit, be courteous and show them your permit and identification. If you do not produce a valid permit and/or identification, you may be issued a citation of up to $250.

Change for the Better

While we may not like the idea of access restrictions being imposed on our wilderness areas and public lands, here at PCT: Oregon, we do recognize the need to maintain these special places in a way that will ensure their natural character and appeal into the future. We’re thankful that the Willamette and Deschutes wilderness planning staff have been receptive to public feedback and concerns with the implementation of this new permitting process. And while the permit plan is not perfect, it allows flexibility to adjust as needed—something we’ll be following closely. 

By acknowledging the Forest Service’s shared interest in preserving our wilderness areas, we can be a force for positive change. The best things that we can do is to be good stewards of the wilderness, adhere to Leave No Trace practices, and become advocates for trails and wilderness. If you see trash on the trail, please pick it up and pack it out; support trail and wilderness organizations; and join local trail work parties. And, when the opportunity arises, instead of complaining about problems, offer smart and creative solutions. As a community who cherishes our wilderness and backcountry spaces, and the peace, freedom and adventure that they have to offer, these are just a few of the ways that we can be part of the solution.

Eli "Lounger" Boschetto

Eli "Lounger" Boschetto

Eli is director of PCT: Oregon, and the author of three Mountaineers Books guides: Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail: Oregon, Day Hiking: Mount Hood, and Urban Trails: Portland. He is also a brand ambassador for SPOT and National Geographic Maps, and is on the advisory board for the Oregon Trails Coalition. Eli lives in Portland, Oregon.

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