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Coronavirus: Oregon, Washington close all national forest sites, trails across 24M acres

The closures cover around 24 million acres of forest, mountains and coast spread across 17 national forests.
Credit: Statesman Journal File
Backpackers and hikers could be required to get a permit before entering five wilderness areas in Oregon, including the Mount Jefferson area.

The Pacific Northwest is closing outdoor recreation on a scale never previously imagined.

In the quest to contain COVID-19, and follow state-issued orders for people to stay home, the U.S. Forest Service will close all developed recreation sites across both Oregon and Washington in coming days, the agency announced Friday. 

The closures cover around 24 million acres of forest, mountains and coast spread across 17 national forests, two National Scenic Areas, a national grassland, and two National Volcanic Monuments. 

The shutdown includes all hiking trails, campgrounds, sno-parks, boat ramps and OHV riding areas — any place that is considered a "developed recreation site," officials said. 

Coupled with the closure of Oregon and Washington's state parks — in addition to many local and county parks — and there are precious few places remaining for outdoor recreation. 

"Recreation sites are closing to protect staff and the communities we serve and slow the spread of COVID-19," said Michelle Mitchell, assistant director for recreation in Region 6 of the Forest Service. "Washington and Oregon are aligning operations to support the states' governors executive orders for residents to, 'stay home, stay safe and save lives.'" 

The details of the closure, and how it's implemented, will be left up to the individual forests, officials said, and some of the details could differ.  

In the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, the entire forest is closed — even to dispersed and off-trail exploring. 

"Bushwacking into the backcountry is not allowed," spokeswoman Rachel Pawlitz said. 

In other forests, including Mount Hood and Deschutes national forests, dispersed use will be open but not encouraged.  

Dispersed use generally means driving on a Forest Service road to a remote location to camp or fish or bushwhack. 

"If a hiker or climber gets into trouble in the forest, response times will likely be longer and operating at a lower capacity," said Heather Ibsen, spokesperson for Mt. Hood National Forest. "Working emergency responders are also trying to focus on keeping their local communities and healthcare providers safe during the COVID-19 outbreak."

Is BLM closing its lands as well? 

The other major federal land management agency in the Northwest, the Bureau of Land Management, is also closing its campgrounds, some day-use sites and restrooms, the agency said in a news release.

However, the BLM, which manages much of the desert in Eastern Oregon, said there are still plenty of areas to explore. 

BLM will keep open the trails and wide-open spaces often used for recreation, it said.

"Multiple opportunities remain for the public to enjoy the outdoors as long as visitors heed orders, guidance, and advice of local and state officials and the Centers for Disease Control," BLM said in a news release. 

Zach Urness has been an outdoors reporter, photographer and videographer in Oregon for 12 years. To support his work, subscribe to the Statesman Journal. Urness can be reached at zurness@StatesmanJournal.com or (503) 399-6801. Find him on Twitter at @ZachsORoutdoors. 

This article was originally published by the Salem Statesman Journal, one of more than a dozen news organizations throughout the state sharing their coverage of the novel coronavirus outbreak to help inform Oregonians about this evolving heath issue. 

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