Q&A With USFS Public Affairs Officer Rachel Pawlitz
What is the Columbia River Gorge Forest Service district responsible for—besides hiking trails?
Pawlitz: Quite a lot. We manage two Wild & Scenic Rivers (the Klickitat and the Lower White Salmon), protect cultural and natural resources, protect watersheds and review federal land-use proposals. We have to ensure projects and developments protect scenic, natural, recreational and cultural resources. This is a unique part of our mission that is not widely known or understood. In addition to hiking, we encourage a wide range of outdoor recreation such as mountain biking, road biking, camping, geocaching, horseback riding, fishing, swimming, rafting, paddleboarding and windsurfing. Outdoor enthusiasm also includes scenic driving, education programs for youth, picnicking, and simple nature viewing from birdwatching to enjoying waterfalls.
What are some of the biggest challenges in maintaining the Gorge’s many hiking trails?
Pawlitz: One of the biggest visitor impacts that we see is improper trail etiquette such as cutting switchbacks, or creating or following side trails. Other serious impacts we have to address include campfires being built at times or places when it is not permitted, dispersed camping that is too close to riparian areas or too close to trails, not keeping dogs leashed where it is required, and not properly burying human waste (or not at all).
When trails are damaged, what is involved in repairing them?
Pawlitz: First, we have to determine if the trail is part of the official Forest Service trail system. In the Gorge, there are numerous illegal and user-created trails that we do not officially maintain. Preventing illegal trail building is a major challenge. Of course, staffing levels and funding are two factors that influence how much trail maintenance we can do. Typically, we start by logging trails in the spring before focusing on other improvements, such as treadwork and brushing. Repairs to bridges are based more on needs, engineering review and design, and funding. Projects that require major construction or repair are reviewed by scientists and our archaeologist as part of federal policy requirements and Scenic Area Act specific requirements.
With more hikers using Gorge trails, what is the Forest Service doing to address the increased impact?
Pawlitz: The new Ready, Set, Gorge! campaign was designed to improve public understanding of trail etiquette, how to avoid crowds in the Gorge by avoiding peak days and times, how to improve Gorge experiences with planning, and of course, how to adopt Leave No Trace principles. We have also started stationing uniformed field rangers at busy recreation sites to assist visitors, answer questions, provide interpretive services, enforce laws and assist with safety issues. There will also be some upcoming opportunities for us to reconsider recreation intensity at our sites along with the Gorge Commission, as part the review process for our management plan.
How should hikers prepare for a hike in the Columbia Gorge?
What can hikers do to reduce their impact on trails in the Gorge?
There are many ways you can pitch in and volunteer with the CRGNSA Forest Service to help maintain trails in the Gorge. Some of the groups the Forest Service works with are Friends of the Columbia Gorge, Columbia River Gorge Visitors Association and Trailkeepers of Oregon. You can visit these sites and see what events and activities they have planned, or contact the Columbia River Gorge Forest Service unit with questions and to request information at 541-308-1700. The Forest Service also invites the public to provide input and ideas directly to them. Visit their social media pages at facebook.com/crgnsa and twitter.com/crgnsa.
Would you like to share your own experiences, insights and helpful tips with your fellow hikers? Take the PCT: Oregon Hiker Survey and join the Trail Talk conversation.