The U.S. Forest Service is proposing sweeping new rules that would limit the number of people allowed into five of Oregon’s most popular wilderness areas.
A sharp increase in crowds — and environmental damage that’s followed — has led the agency to propose major changes to the way people access Mount Jefferson, Mount Washington, Three Sisters, Waldo Lake and Diamond Peak wilderness areas.
“We know this would be a big deal — a big change,” said Beth Peer, special project coordinator for Deschutes National Forest. “But we have a legal mandate to preserve the wilderness character of these special places. Crowds have grown to the point where we really had no choice.”
Under the proposal, any person backpacking or hiking into the five wilderness areas would likely need a permit purchased in advance.
Backpackers spending the night would need a permit regardless of where they entered or chose to camp. Day-hikers would need a permit if they entered from one of the 40 trailheads near highways 22, 242 and 46 (see full list of trailheads below).
Permits would cost between $6 and $12, and only a limited amount would be available. The number of permits granted is still to be decided. Rules could be implemented by summer of 2019.
Deschutes and Willamette national forests are taking public comment until July 3 on the proposals. Email comments to email@example.com. They'll use feedback to shape a final decision, Peer said.
While permits for popular wilderness areas are fairly common in Washington and California, Oregonians have generally had few barriers to hiking and backpacking into wilderness areas. In most cases, people can simply show up at a wilderness trailhead and start hiking.
Currently, only Obsidian Trail in the Three Sisters Wilderness and Pamelia Lake in the Mount Jefferson Wilderness require a permit to hike or backpack. The success in limiting crowds and damage at those two places played a role in the proposed wilderness-wide expansion, Peer said.
No longer a wilderness experience?
The 1964 Wilderness Act called wilderness “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man.”
But on the Cascade Crest — between Mount Jefferson and Diamond Peak — finding solitude in wilderness areas has been increasingly difficult.
The population boom in Bend and growth in the Willamette Valley have brought more people to the mountains each year, stressing the wilderness areas to the breaking point, officials said.
Visitors to the Three Sisters Wilderness jumped to 132,118 last year, up from just 46,999 in 2011, according to data collected by the Forest Service.
"I don't even consider it a wilderness experience," said Chris Sabo, trail crew supervisor for Deschutes National Forest in a 2013 interview. "It's almost more of an urban park. The use is very high, really beyond what this area can accommodate."
Closest to Salem, visitors to the Mount Jefferson Wilderness increased to 28,987 in 2016, up from 22,600 five years ago. Mount Washington was up 119 percent and Diamond Peak up 97 percent.
“The basic idea is that if use is too high, a limited entry system is a pretty simple way to get those numbers down,” Peer said.
All those extra people have had a profound impact on areas that are supposed to have little evidence of human influence.
In addition to simple issues such as crowded trailheads and limited campsites, wilderness rangers have found increased amounts of poop, garbage and resource damage.
Wilderness rangers reported coming across unburied human feces more than 1,000 times. They reported hauling out more than 1,200 pounds of trash, according to documents.
"It's disheartening to go up there and see some of the behavior," said Jon Erickson, former wilderness ranger in the Three Sisters. "Every week we'd find people with illegal campfires, garbage left behind and unburied waste sitting right inside a camping spot.
"Yes, people are actually pooping at their own campsite and leaving it there."
Obsidian and Pamelia
One of the reasons officials cited for using a limited entry system is the success at Obsidian Trail and Pamelia Lake.
Both places were becoming crowded and struggling with overuse in the early 1990s, according to officials. In response, a limited entry system was installed that allows 20 groups into Pamelia per day, and 30 day hikers and 40 overnight visitors to Obsidian each day.
The results have been positive, said Troy Hall, an Oregon State University professor who has tracked environmental conditions at Obsidian.
“I’ve actually been surprised,” Hall said. “It’s pretty similar now to what it was 20 years ago, and it’s even improved a little. Other places, like Green Lakes in the Three Sisters that don’t have limited entry, have just gotten hammered.”
Hall said limited entry hasn’t always been an easy sell to the public. In the late 1990s, Mount Hood National Forest tried implementing a limited entry system, she said.
“It was pretty soundly rejected,” Hall said. “The public just wasn’t interested in taking that extra step.”
Notes: For a full breakdown of the regulations and reasons behind the proposal, click here.
Trailheads that would require permit for day hikers:
Three Sisters off Highway 242: Linton Lake, Obsidian, Lava Camp Lake, and Black Crater.
Three Sisters Eastside Trailheads off Highway 46: Millican Crater, Scott Pass, Pole Creek, Chush Falls, Park Meadow, Three Creek Meadow, Tam McArthur Rim, Tam McArthur Rim Horse Trail, Broken Top, Crater Ditch, Todd lake, Green Lakes, Soda Creek, Devil’s Lake/South Sister, Wickiup Plains, Sisters Mirror, Quinn Meadow, Elk Lake, Six Lakes, and Many Lakes, Irish-Taylor, Winopee, Corral Swamp, Lucky Lake, Deer Lake.
Mount Jefferson Westside Trailheads off Highway 22: Crown Lake & Roaring Creek, Triangulation and Triangulation Peak, Cheat Creek, Whitewater, Woodpecker, Pamelia Lake, Minto Mountain, Bingham Ridge, Marion Lake, Pine Ridge & Turpentine, Duffy lake, Maxwell Butte, Pacific Crest-Santiam Pass.
Visitors to Cascade Crest wilderness areas
Data collected by voluntary wilderness permits filled out at trailheads
Diamond Peak (eastside access only)