The Forest Service is planning to expand Obsidian Trial's limited access system to many other trailheads in Oregon’s wilderness areas.
Any overnight trip and some day-hikes would cost at least $4 to $11 for a permit to enter the Three Sisters, Mount Jefferson and Mount Washington wilderness areas, under a proposal from the U.S. Forest Service issued Tuesday.
But longer backpacking trips, especially with a family, could get a lot more expensive.
The cost is the final step in a years-long process intended to reduce crowds on 450,000 acres of Oregon’s most iconic backcountry by using a permit system to limit numbers.
The proposed fees break down this way: $5 per person, per night for an overnight group permit, plus a $6 processing fee. An individual day-use permit for 19 of the most popular trailheads would cost $3, plus a $1 processing fee.
No fee is required for those 12 years and under, but they would still need a permit.
“We are looking for the public’s input on the next steps for managing visitor use in these popular wilderness areas so we can reduce resource damage and maintain access to these areas for current and future generations,” Deschutes Forest Supervisor Holly Jewkes said.
Cost of permits last step in plan
The permit cost is the second step in a process intended to limit environmental damage caused by a growing number of visitors to the three wilderness areas in the Cascade Mountains between the Willamette Valley and Bend.
The first step, finalized in May, established a “limited entry permit system” that will begin in 2020. Under the new system, each wilderness trailhead will have a quota of overnight and day-use permits available for visitors to purchase before entering.
For example, at Marion Lake Trailhead in the Mount Jefferson Wilderness, there will be 10 overnight group permits and 40 day-use permits available each day.
Officials stressed the system isn't meant to limit overall numbers, but to “redistribute use” away from the most crowded places, such as Green Lakes, South Sister and Jefferson Park.
“For some of the most popular hikes, it will be tough to get a permit,” Matt Peterson, who led the project for the Forest Service, said in May. “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.”
The plan has been objected to by multiple outdoor recreation groups, including the Portland-based Mazamas.
“We’d love them going back to the drawing board and coming up with a much less dramatic plan,” Sarah Bradham, acting executive director of the Mazamas, said in February. “They relied on limited data to justify something that will make it more difficult for people to experience their public lands.”
Cost adds up for longer backpacking trips
While the cost of a short trip is relatively low, the cost does pile up for longer backpacking trips.
A single person's three-night backpacking trip would cost $15, plus a $6 processing fee, for a total of $21.
For a family of four going on a three-night backpacking trip with two teenagers older than 13, the cost would be $66.
"This is just a starting point," Peterson said. "We want to get people's feedback."
But some thought the price was too high.
"While well-intentioned, the cost of this system could price people out of experiencing our public lands," said Erik Fernandez, wilderness coordinator for the environmental group Oregon Wild.
Forest Service officials said they planned on "partnering with nonprofit organizations to make fee free permits available to anyone deterred from visiting because of the cost of the proposed fee," Deschutes National Forest spokeswoman Jean
How will hikers purchase permits in new system?
Under the plan released Tuesday, permits will be available for purchase on Recreation.Gov, the website where all reservations on federal lands are made.
The forest service is planning to offer some permits in advance while holding a portion for "spur of the moment trips."
"We are looking for public feedback on how many should be reservable and how many should be held for spur of the moment trips," Nelson-Dean said.
They're also looking for input on how far in advance to offer the permits. In the first season, they'll open the reservation system on the first Monday in April, but that could change in the future, Nelson-Dean said.
"We understand that we may need to adjust on the fly," Nelson-Dean said.
Those who purchase a permit won't need to pay an additional fee for parking or a Northwest Forest Pass.
Where does the money go?
Setting a cost for permits has been a complex process for the Forest Service.
The cost needed to be enough to fund additional rangers, but it can’t be so high the public faces a financial barrier to public lands, officials said.
The funds collected would also go toward trail maintenance and visitor education.
An added cost from Recreation.Gov
Another complicating factor comes from the processing fee changed by the website Recreation.Gov, where the permits are purchased.
Owned by the private corporation Booz Allen Hamilton, Recreation.Gov automatically adds a $1 to $6 “processing fee” to every transaction.
That slightly increases the price of the permits. The Forest Service's proposal actually sets the permit prices at $5 for overnight trips per person, per night, and $3 for day-use hikes.
But with the additional fee, the real cost jumps.
The Forest Service will take all the public comments and consider adjusting the proposal. Then, they'll bring a final proposal to two committees that will make recommendations to the Regional Forester for the Pacific Northwest, who will likely make a decision around March.
The first year the permit system goes online is likely to require a lot of education, forest officials said. They'll put up signs and increase awareness beginning early in the summer of 2020.
They haven't decided on a specific fine for breaking the rules — and not having a permit. But currently, those who travel to limited entry areas such as Obsidian Trail and Pamelia Lake can get hit with a fine of $200.
"We know that enforcement may be a challenge," Nelson-Dean said. "Our focus the first few years will be education."
Campfire ban, PCT hikers, hunting exemptions
In addition to the permit system, officials made a few other changes that will begin in 2020.
· 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 and elk rifle season hunting tag will be exempt from the permit requirement. Those with a general archery deer hunting license will also be exempt from the day-use permit.
· Thru-hikers traveling more than 500 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail will be allowed to camp in the 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.
What trailheads are impacted?
Under the new permit system, all overnight trips into three wilderness areas will require a permit. That includes 79 trailheads.
Nineteen trailheads will require a day-use permit — typically the most popular pathways. Here is a list of the trailheads that will require a day-use permit beginning in 2020.
An overnight group permit can include up to 12 people on one permit, but each person would need to pay $5. The $6 processing fee is extra. Individual day-use permits mean one person per permit.
Three Sisters trailheads with day-use hike permit requirement
Scott Trailhead: 13 overnight group permits / 12 day use individual permits
Obsidian: 13 overnight / 30 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
Lava Camp: 7 overnight / 40 day use
Mount Jefferson Wilderness trailheads with day-use hike permit requirement
PCT Breitenbush: 4 overnight / 14 day use
S. Breitenbush: 5 overnight / 12 day use
Whitewater: 8 overnight / 30 day use
Pamelia Lake: 11 overnight / 24 day use
Marion Lake: 10 overnight / 40 day use
Duffy Lake: 13 overnight, 30 day use
Jack Lake: 5 overnight / 60 day use
Mount Washington Wilderness trailheads with day-use hike permit requirement
Benson/Tenas: 8 overnight / 30 day use
PCT McKenzie Pass: 6 overnight / 24 day use
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.
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.
"I don't even consider it a wilderness experience," Chris Sabo, trail crew supervisor for Deschutes National Forest, said 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, are 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.
"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."