New Permit Fees for Central Cascades Wilderness Will Hit PCT Section-Hikers Hard
Earlier this month, the Willamette and Deschutes National Forests released their new permit fee proposals for accessing the Three Sisters, Mount Washington and Mount Jefferson wilderness areas. This is part of the larger Central Cascades Wilderness Studies Project (CCWSP) that was launched in 2017. These new fees will be in conjunction with new hiker limits and trailhead quotas that are scheduled to be implemented in 2020. Combined, this will make it exceptionally difficult—and expensive—to section-hike the PCT through this portion of Oregon.
Recapping the CCWSP
After the failure of the Jefferson Park limited-entry permit project in 2016, Willamette National Forest partnered with neighboring Deschutes National Forest to address increased impact and overuse in the Three Sisters, Mount Washington, and Mount Jefferson wilderness areas. In recent years, these forests have seen a spike in trail and backcountry usage, with many areas—Green Lakes, Jefferson Park, Sisters Mirror Lake, etc.—experiencing increased resource damage, excessive trash and human waste, and significant trail and trailhead crowding.
In 2017, these forest agencies commissioned a comprehensive Environmental Assessment of the area as part of a plan to alleviate some of the stresses and human impacts on these wilderness areas. After several rounds of internal review, as well as an extensive period of public comment (and considerable objection), the Forest Service settled on a Final Decision that would implement a wilderness-wide limited-entry system, and impose significant hiker quotas on many wilderness trails. These limits would affect everyone from local and visiting dayhikers to overnight backpackers to Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) section-hikers. (For a more in-depth summary of the plan, click here.)
Pay to Play
In addition to the trailhead and hiker quotas included in the new wilderness plan, the Forest Service is recommending new permit fees at 20 trailheads for dayhikers and at 79 trailheads for backpackers and some PCT hikers. If approved, these new fees will go into effect in 2020, and will be required for all applicable trailheads from the Friday before Memorial Day to the last Friday in September. According to the new Fee Proposal, revenue collected “would be invested in wilderness management activities, trail maintenance, visitor education and expanding work with volunteers and partners.” Here are the proposed fees:
- Day-use wilderness permit: $3/person + $1 processing & reservation fee/person
- Overnight wilderness permit: $5/person/night + $6 processing & reservation fee/group
- Thru-hiker with 500-mile permit: No charge
- Children 12 and under would not be required to obtain a wilderness permit, however they would be required to have a trail reservation, which includes the processing fee.
While taking a dayhike on the PCT, or any of the affected area trails, may incur a cost of $10–$20 for a small group or family, overnight backpackers could potentially get stung for exorbitant fees. This would be especially true for PCT section-hikers looking to traverse all three wilderness areas (110 miles), which typically requires an average crossing time of eight to ten days. The following table gives an example of what the permit fees will be for overnight travel in the affected wilderness areas (processing & reservation fees not included).
For an idea of how these new fees compare to those from other forest areas and parks:
- Annual Northwest Forest Pass: $35
- Annual National Parks/Interagency Pass: $80
- Mt. Hood Wilderness Permit: free, unlimited
- Mt. Rainier Wilderness Permit: $20/group for up to 14 nights
- Yosemite Wilderness Permit: $5/person + $5 reservation fee in advance; walk-up: free
- Enchantments Wilderness Permit: $5/person/day + $10 reservation fee
- PCT Long-Distance (500+ miles) Permit from PCTA: free
Where and How to Get Permits
How the permit system will work is not outlined in the brief, two-page Fee Proposal, so we reached out to Matt Peterson, Recreation Program Manager at Willamette National Forest, to help fill in some of the missing details. According to Peterson, 100% of the Three Sisters, Mount Washington and Mount Jefferson wilderness permits will be available via the recreation.gov website. At present, the agencies are considering making a percentage of overnight permits available for advance reservation, with the remaining amount available for day-before or day-of availability; the exact percentages have not yet been determined. The reservable permits for the entire 2020 season would become available in early April. For those who may not have access to the reservation website, walk-up permits (if available) could be obtained at area ranger stations during normal operating hours.
We also asked about any limits that may be imposed to prevent permit hoarding (and/or scalping), what the cancellation policy will be and how those permits will be added back into the availability inventory, and whether there will be a system in place to deal with no-shows, in order to ensure that as many hikers as the quota allows will actually be permitted to hike. Peterson says that those are all topics that they are continuing to review, and the districts will be addressing those issues as the process gets fine-tuned through the public comment period. Peterson also confirmed that permit holders would not need to display a Northwest Forest Pass, and that new permits would include a trailhead parking pass. (Trailheads not included in the quota list will still require a Northwest Forest Pass where applicable.)
Reactions from the Community
We wanted to see how other organizations were responding to this news, so we began by contacting the Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA). “As lovers of wilderness areas and public lands, we want them as available as possible for people to enjoy,” says Mark Larabee, PCTA’s Associate Director, Advocacy and Government Relations. “But too many people trying to enjoy the same places at the same time are having a damaging effect on fragile landscapes in Oregon’s Central Cascades. By implementing a permit system, the [Forest Service] is attempting to spread the use so people are less concentrated in the most popular places.”
Dana Hendricks, PCTA’s Columbia Cascades Regional Represenative who oversees the Three Sisters, Mount Washington and Mount Jefferson wilderness area portions of the PCT shared her thoughts about PCTA’s next steps in this collaborative process, stating, “We will be talking with our Forest Service partners to better understand the reasoning behind the proposed fee structure, how it compares in relation to other limited-entry areas around the nation, and what the ideas are for providing access to folks who can’t pay.”
With so many trails that access the PCT near the city of Bend, we also reached out to Kevney Dugan, President and CEO at Visit Bend. Dugan shared that his organization “is interested in the long-term viability of these wilderness areas as they’re currently used, and how this relates to Bend’s appeal as an outdoor tourism destination in conjunction with its economic vitality. Additionally, any new changes need to balance trail limits and usage fees with equitable access and thoughtful solutions.”
Representatives we spoke with from Trailkeepers of Oregon, Travel Oregon and Access Fund share some concerns about the new Fee Proposal and are still considering their positions. We will post updates when they make their comments public.
In general, PCT: Oregon is not opposed to reasonable permit quotas and usage fees. We recognize the need to protect our wilderness areas from overuse, and give back to their maintenance and preservation. However, as America’s public lands, we advocate for these areas to be managed thoughtfully, and with an eye toward equitable access. According to the Forest Service’s own Wilderness Management Policy (2323.12), any regulatory action should:
- Maximize visitor freedom within the wilderness. Minimize direct controls and restrictions. Apply controls only when they are essential for protection of the wilderness resource and after indirect measures have failed.
Use information, interpretation, and education as the primary tools for management of wilderness visitors.
We understand that the Forest Service has concerns about overcrowding and human impact in these wilderness areas. However, we are disappointed with their approach to pursue a singularly-focused effort of aggressive access restrictions coupled with potentially excessive access fees, and with little consideration to less-restrictive backcountry management solutions, many of which have proven successful in other parks and wilderness areas. We presented these concerns and recommendations in a lengthy objection notice during the previous comment period.
Regarding the new Fee Proposal—especially considering its potential impact on PCT section-hikers—we are strongly opposed, and will be submitting a formal objection to this barrier to access these public lands and wilderness areas. Our objection will include, but not be limited to:
- The potential for excessive and unprecedented permit fees to be imposed upon multi-day backcountry users and PCT section-hikers.
- The potential of pricing low-income, youth, and those lacking internet access out of accessing and enjoying their public lands.
- The overall complexity of the permit and fee plan, with few and vague details ensuring equitable access and optimal usage within the new limits. This includes a small but significant detail omitted from the Final Decision that puts additional limits on daily permit quotas. (We’ll be sharing a separate post on this discovery soon.)
What are your thoughts on this new Fee Proposal, and how will it affect your ability to access and enjoy these wilderness areas?
The public comment period for this issue is open now, and runs through Nov. 25, 2019. Don’t miss your opportunity to make your voice heard. Send an email to WillametteRecFeeComments@usda.gov with the subject line “ATTN: Recreation Fees.”
You should share your thoughts and feelings about the issue, but please do so in a professional and respectful manner. Please don’t submit rants or use foul language, as these are not constructive, and will only be dismissed—plus, these are public comments, so everyone will see what you say. You are welcome to share some of the points in this article, but your comments are best when personal. You can also post comments below in direct response to this article. Some of these may get incorporated into our own official response. We will continue to provide updates as this issue progresses. Be sure to follow our Facebook Page for the latest news and information.
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UPDATE: This article was updated on 10/23 with USFS clarification on proposed permit availability.
UPDATE 2: This article was updated on 12/23 with the extended comment period deadline.
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