Hiking and camping in three of Oregon's most popular wilderness areas will be restricted starting in 2020, an attempt by outdoor officials to limit damage from growing crowds of visitors.

The U.S. Forest Service announced a decision Thursday to install a permit system limiting the number of people in the Mount Jefferson, Three Sisters and Mount Washington Wilderness areas.

A sharp increase in crowds during the past decade — and environmental damage that’s followed — prompted the agency to enact sweeping changes to the way people access 450,000 acres of Oregon’s most iconic backcountry.

“The goal is to maintain the quality of our wilderness areas and the experience they offer,” said John Allen, supervisor of Deschutes National Forest. “It’s about keeping the amount of people to a level where they’re not degrading these special places.”

The newly-regulated areas sit between Salem and Bend on the Cascade Crest, a region of dramatic volcanoes, wildflower meadows and alpine lakes.

Anyone camping overnight in the three wilderness areas will need a permit from a limited pool, under the new system.

Day-users also will need a special permit for 30 of the most popular trails, including routes to Green Lakes Basin, Marion Lake, South Sister and Jefferson Park.

The decision marks a fundamental change to the unencumbered way most Oregonians currently hike, backpack and ride horses on public lands. It’s a system that treats hiking in a way similar to fishing or hunting, which have long been more regulated.

Officials say skyrocketing crowds — and the trash, damage and overflowing parking lots that have followed — left them little choice.

“We’ve tried just about everything,” said Matt Peterson, one of the project leaders. “Limited entry is the best tool we have left for protecting places that are getting way too much use.”

The public has 45 days to object before a final decision is reached in February. The new permit system would begin in 2020 and remain in effect each year between Memorial Day and Sept. 30.

How will it work?

Under the new system, each wilderness trailhead will have a quota of overnight and day-use permits for sale.

For example, at popular Marion Lake Trailhead, in the Mount Jefferson Wilderness, there will be 10 overnight group permits and 40 day-use permits available each day.

People can purchase permits online in advance, but a certain number will be held to allow for “spontaneous” same-day or next-day trips.

“The quota for each trailhead will be different,” Peterson said. “It depends on factors like how sensitive the area is to impacts, how popular it is historically, the number of campsites it has, and how much parking there is."

The cost of permits is being decided separately. The Forest Service will come to the public with cost proposals around February, Allen said.

Officials stressed the system isn't meant to limit overall numbers. It’s more about “redistributing” people to avoid massive crowds in just a few places, primarily west of Bend along Cascade Lakes Scenic Byway.

“For some of the most popular hikes, it will be tough to get a permit,” Peterson said. “But if a person can’t get a permit for a weekend in August, they might end up going on a weekday, or in the fall, or even trying a different area. It will redistribute use in a lot of different ways."

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Hikers head into the shadow of South Sister, Oregon's third-tallest mountain. (Photo: Zach Urness / Statesman Journal)

Why is this happening now?

The 1964 Wilderness Act defined wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man.”

But between Mount Jefferson and the Three Sisters, 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.

Visits have almost tripled in the Three Sisters since 2011. Mount Washington was up 119 percent and Mount Jefferson has also seen major increases.

All those extra people have had a profound impact on areas that are supposed to have little evidence of human influence.

In addition to issues such as crowded trailheads and limited campsites, wilderness rangers have found increased amounts of poop, garbage and trampled vegetation.

Rangers reported coming across unburied human feces more than 1,000 times in 2016. They reported hauling out more than 1,200 pounds of trash, according to documents.

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Trash has become an increasing problem in the wilderness areas on the Cascade Crest. (Photo: US 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."

Limited entry: already an Oregon idea

There are a handful of places across the West that use a limited entry system to control crowds at iconic destinations.

The summit climb up Mount St. Helens and backcountry of The Enchantments, both in Washington, have limited entry. It’s also in place at Mount Whitney and other places in California’s Sierra Nevada.

But perhaps the best example — and the example this system is based upon — can be found right here in Oregon.

Obsidian Trail (Three Sisters Wilderness) and Pamelia Lake (Mount Jefferson) have had limited entry since 1995.

Both places were becoming crowded and struggling with overuse in the early 1990s. But after the permit system, both have stabilized, seeing recovering forest, more wildlife and more solitude.

“I think we’ll see similar payoffs,” Allen said. “We have two decades of experience in seeing how this system makes a positive difference."

But both Allen and Peterson said having limited entry on such a large scale — across three wilderness areas and 450,000 acres — is an idea without much precedent.

A limited entry system will be in effect at 79 different trailheads for overnight use and 30 for day use. That's going to require hiring new wilderness rangers and having a streamlined distribution system.

"There's a level of uncertainty because it hasn't been done before on this scale," Peterson said. "We know we're not going to get it perfect, which is why we'll be able to make adjustments as we go. If something's not working, we can change it."

Campfire ban, PCT hikers, hunting exemptions

In addition to the permit system, officials made a few other changes.

- All campfires will be banned above 5,700 feet in the three wilderness areas.

- The trailhead for Broken Top will be pulled back to Road 370, tacking on an extra 1.3 miles of hiking.

- Hunters with a High Cascade deer rifle season hunting tag will be exempt from the permit requirement. The tag is already a "limited draw" and usually takes place in September.

- Thru-hikers traveling more than 500 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail will be allowed to camp in PCT corridor — within a quarter mile of the trail. However, PCT hikers will be prohibited from camping in a few areas, including Jefferson Park and Obsidian Limited Entry Area.

- A "Skyline Permit" will be offered to allow camping and hiking to Oregon PCT hikers traveling through the three permit-controlled wilderness areas.

Quota system breakdown

The number of overnight and day-use permits available to enter each trailhead in the Mount Jefferson, Three Sisters and Mount Washington wilderness areas will vary depending on location.

Here's a breakdown of each trailhead and the number of permits available for each from Memorial Day to Sept. 30 each year beginning in 2020.

Note: An overnight group permit can include up to 12 people on one permit. Individual day-use permits mean one person per permit.

Three Sisters Trailhead quotas available each day

Scott Trailhead: 13 overnight group permits / 12 day use individual permits

Obsidian: 13 overnight / 30 day use

Linton Lake: 2 overnight / 24 day use

Proxy Falls: No permit required. This trailhead will be targeted as an area to facilitate wilderness education

Foley: 7 overnight / no permit required for day use

Separation: 3 overnight / no permit required for day use

Rainbow: 3 overnight / no permit required for day use

Horse Creek: 3 overnight / no permit required for day use

Upper French Pete/Pat Saddle: 3 overnight / no permit required for day use

Upper Lowder: 3 overnight / no permit required for day use

Upper East Fork: 3 overnight / no permit required for day use

Lower East Fork: 3 overnight / no permit required for day use

Lower Lowder: 3 overnight / no permit required for day use

French Pete: 3 overnight / no permit required for day use

Rebel: 5 overnight / no permit required for day use

Olallie: 5 overnight / no permit required for day use

Elk Fork: 5 overnight / no permit required for day use

South Fork: 5 overnight / no permit required for day use

Crossing Way: 7 overnight / no permit required for day use

Box Canyon: 7 overnight / no permit required for day use

Skookum: 5 overnight / no permit required for day use

Taylor Burn: 6 overnight / no permit required for day use

Helen Lake: 6 overnight / no permit required for day use

Jack Pine: 6 overnight / no permit required for day use

Irish Taylor: 3 overnight / no permit required for day use

Many Lakes: 3 overnight / no permit required for day use

Deep Lake: 3 overnight / no permit required for day use

Winopee/Corral Lake: 3 overnight / no permit required for day use

Corral Swamp: 3 overnight / no permit required for day use

Lucky Lake: 3 overnight / 30 day use

Six Lakes: 8 overnight / 60 day use

Elk Lake: 4 overnight / 24 day use

Quinn Meadow: 4 overnight / no permit required for day use

Sisters Mirror: 4 overnight / 16 day use

Devils Lake/Wickiup (South Sister climbers TH): 16 overnight / 100 day use

Green Lakes / Soda Creek: 14 overnight / 80 day use

Todd Lake: 3 overnight / 12 day use

Crater Ditch: 4 overnight / 16 day use

Broken Top: 4 overnight / 40 day use

Tam McArthur Rim: 5 overnight / 80 day use

Three Creek Meadow: 3 overnight / no permit required for day use

Park Meadow: 3 overnight / no permit required for day use

Chush Falls: 3 overnight / 20 day use

Pole Creek: 3 overnight / no permit required for day use

Scott Pass: 4 overnight / no permit required for day use

Millican: 4 overnight / no permit required for day use

Black Crater: 4 overnight / 24 day use

Lava Camp: 7 overnight / 40 day use

Mount Jefferson Wildererness Trailhead quotas

Roaring Creek: 4 overnight / no permit required for day use

Crown Lake: 4 overnight / no permit required for day use

PCT Breitenbush: 4 overnight / 14 day use

S. Breitenbush: 5 overnight / 12 day use

Triangulation: 5 overnight / 16 day use

Cheat Creek: 5 overnight / no permit required for day use

Whitewater: 8 overnight / 30 day use

Woodpecker: 3 overnight / 12 day use

Pamelia Lake: 11 overnight / 24 day use

Minto Mountain: 4 overnight / no permit required for day use

Bingham Ridge: 4 overnight / no permit required for day use

Marion Lake: 10 overnight / 40 day use

Jefferson Lake: 3 overnight / no permit required for day use

Pine Ridge: 3 overnight / no permit required for day use

Big Meadows Horse Camp: 13 overnight / no permit required for day use

Duffy Lake: 13 overnight, 30 day use

Maxwell Butte: 13 overnight / no permit required for day use

Cabot Lake: 5 overnight / 14 day use

Bear Valley: 3 overnight / no permit required for day use

PCT Santiam: 10 overnight / 50 day use

Jack Lake: 5 overnight / 60 day use

Round Lake: 3 overnight / no permit required for day use

Mount Washington Wilderness trailhead quotas

Patjens: 3 overnight / no permit required for day use

PCT Big Lake: 2 overnight / 20 day use

Hortense Lake - Access Point: 3 overnight / no permit required for day use

Dry Creek - Access Point: 3 overnight / no permit required for day use

PCT McKenzie Pass: 6 overnight / 24 day use

Hand Lake: 3 overnight / no permit required for day use

Benson/Tenas: 8 overnight / 30 day use

Fingerboard Prairie: 3 overnight / no permit required for day use

Tenas Lakes: 3 overnight / no permit required for day use

Robinson Lake: 3 overnight / no permit required for day use

Skyline - Pacific Crest Trail permit

Daily launches: 3 overnight / N/A