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Forest Service Considering Sweeping Changes to Access of Oregon Wilderness Areas

Until now (and still effective this year) Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) day-, section- and thru-hikers have the freedom to hike anywhere they like in Oregon with minimal permit requirements. The only permits needed to hike and camp on the (PCT) in Oregon are in three select locations: Crater Lake National Park, Shale and Pamelia lakes, and the Obsidian limited entry areas. The latter two even grant pass-thru rights to PCT hikers (permits still required for camping). Next year, that may come to an end, as the Willamette and Deschutes National Forests are teaming up to consider potentially significant changes that could directly affect access to our favorite National Scenic Trail.

Last week, we attended an open house hosted by wilderness and recreation managers for the Willamette National Forest. The purpose of the meeting was to present the current proposals for implementing a new permit, quota and fee system across the Waldo, Diamond Peak, Three Sisters, Mount Washington and Mount Jefferson wilderness areas. If implemented to the highest degree, it has the potential to limit access and require fees at more than 100 trailheads and more than 120 miles of the PCT. The most aggressive plan would also dissect some wilderness areas into “zones,” thereby adding even more restrictions. (See sample map below for the Three Sisters Wilderness.)

The reason behind this action is the upward trend in outdoor recreation in Central Oregon’s forest and wilderness areas, and the impact it has on these natural spaces. Some trails have seen increases of nearly 200% visitation since 2011. This increased usage has put excessive strain on some locations, with primary concerns including environmental damage to natural areas (e.g., non-LNT camps, social trails), abundant traffic on popular trails (e.g., Green Lakes, Jefferson Park), overcrowded trailhead parking areas (e.g., Cascade Lakes Hwy), and profuse amounts of trash and unburied human waste in common camp areas (e.g, yuck!). The Forest Service has thus determined that it is time to take action to reduce this impact and try to mitigate some of the damage being caused.

As required by law, the Forest Service must create multiple proposal options for any substantial changes to public lands, and must present these changes to the public with an opportunity for interested parties to voice concerns. The Willamette and Deschutes currently have five proposal options that they are considering for these wilderness areas (click here). At one end of the scale (per requirements) is to do nothing. At the opposite end of the scale is to limit access and impose user quota, permit and fee requirements—for both day and overnight visitors—at nearly all trailheads. It also includes dismantling common backcountry camp locations. These proposals have the potential to significantly impact hikers’ access to the Pacific Crest Trail. The public comment period is open until May 21.

Willamette Recreation Program Manager Matt Peterson says, “the new restrictions would not affect any PCT thru-hikers holding an official PCT thru-hiking permit obtained through the Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA).” The rub is that these permits are not available to weekend backpackers, section-hikers or anyone hiking less than 500 continuous miles. Peterson says that there are currently no considerations being given to section-hikers, and that they will be required to adhere to all new permit requirements and area quotas. This could require potential Oregon PCT section-hikers to obtain (and pay for) up to four different wilderness area permits.

Following are a few more points to the current proposals, and answers to some of the questions raised by those in attendance.

  • Despite the increase in visitation to Willamette and Deschutes forest and wilderness areas, and the projected increase in Oregon’s population and forest visitation in the coming years, the Forest Service is not currently planning on adding to their trail inventory (i.e., building more trails), or improving access to trailheads or trailhead locations.
  • When asked about concentrating impact in designated backcountry camp areas and mitigating human waste with the installation of low-impact backcountry privy units, the Forest Service says it is not currently considering such solutions, but is instead focusing on public education, promoting Leave No Trace, and increasing ranger presence in the backcountry.
  • Details on how the new permit system would work were thin, but the Forest Service is planning to have the system managed through the recreation.gov website. It raised many concerns about day-of permit access, preventing permit hoarding and scalping, fee structures, and how fee funds would be allocated. The topic of fees will be addressed in a separate proposal.

Our goal is to help the Forest Service find a way to ensure that potential trailhead quotas and zone camping quotas don’t make it prohibitively complicated to do PCT section-hikes of less than 500 miles.

Dana Hendricks, PCTA

The Pacific Crest Trail Association has not officially chimed in on the issue, however, also present at last week’s meeting, Columbia Cascades Regional Representative Dana Hendricks comments, “We commend the Forest Service for seeking a solution to address skyrocketing visitor use, and thank them for their exemption for thru-hikers, but we need to seek the simplest solutions possible. Our goal is to help the Forest Service find a way to ensure that potential trailhead quotas and zone camping quotas don’t make it prohibitively complicated to do PCT section-hikes of less than 500 miles.”

How will these proposed changes affect your hiking interests? The Willamette and Deschutes managers need to hear your thoughts and feelings about how these new limits to access our public lands may affect your hiking interests and ability to recreate on the PCT and other wilderness trails. If you have thoughts or suggestions, now is the time to speak up. A reminder however, your comments should be polite and constructive. Screaming, “My tax dollars … ” does no good. The public comment period is only open until May 21.

Here at PCT: Oregon, we agree that increased use of wilderness areas has had some negative impacts on sensitive locations, and that smart solutions should be implemented. However we feel that the current proposals to only impose blanket limits to access is too biased. It does little to take into account the variety of forest users (e.g., dayhikers vs. section-hikers, weekenders vs. midweek hikers), mitigate impact by employing creative solutions, or consider future population growth, and with it, increased interest in wilderness recreation. We would like to see a combination of reasonable access limits and proactive backcountry management that acknowledges backcountry user interests in conjunction with the development of new trail and camp systems in order to balance user impacts while continuing to grant easy access to Oregon’s spectacular public lands.

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Proposal for permit requirements and access quotas on the Three Sisters Wilderness. Red dots indicate potential permit requirements. Click map for more information.
Main photo: Sisters Mirror Lake in the Three Sisters Wilderness is one of the areas impacted by high visitor use.

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