Rachel Pawlitz is the new Community Engagement and Public Affairs Specialist with the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. Administered by the U.S. Forest Service, the scenic area encompasses 292,000 acres of mountains, canyons, rivers and wilderness along 85 miles of the Columbia River. Within the scenic area, there are more than 200 miles of National Forest System hiking trails, including 26 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail.
Pawlitz came to the Forest Service for her interest in ecology, love of outdoors and belief that the agency does great work. Her position was recently created in response to the Forest Service’s need to improve communication and information services to the public. With Gorge trails and attractions getting busier and more popular in recent years, along with some notable trail damage and a few tragic hiking incidents, I spent some time chatting with Pawlitz about what that means for both trails and hikers. Here’s part of our conversation.

What is the Columbia River Gorge Forest Service district responsible for—besides hiking trails?

Rachel Pawlitz, in her USFS uniform, on the job at Multnomah Falls.

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?

Pawlitz: The best thing would be to understand and follow Leave No Trace principles—especially how to plan ahead and  prepare before coming out. Wearing the proper footwear is very important. Next would be staying on established trails. Many hikers don’t realize how unsafe the dropoffs are in the Gorge, or realize that safety and keeping a safe distance from cliffs is the hiker’s responsibility. We have many search and rescues when hikers fail to bring a map and compass or try to tackle a longer hike than what they are in shape to do. Bringing the Ten Essentials is important all year round, but particularly needs to be emphasized in the shoulder seasons (spring and fall) due to the risk of hypothermia.

What can hikers do to reduce their impact on trails in the Gorge?

Pawlitz: Heeding signage and suggested closures is a critical first step for reducing impacts to natural resources. When visitors see signs that say “Restoration In Process,” or find out that certain areas have seasonal or safety closures, we ask that they please respect these signs and closures. Also, walking in single file on the trail and staying on durable surfaces are important. At the core of our message is to Recreate with Respect. We hope that visitors consider the long-term and cumulative impacts that they have, and respect that they are sharing the place with future visitors and future generations.
Rachel Pawlitz (left) on a crosscut team logging out trails in the Columbia 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 GorgeColumbia 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.

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