Permits and visitor limits planned for popular wilderness areas east of Eugene, Springfield
The agency will finalize the plan early next year and the new permit requirements and limits would go into effect in 2020.
“People have impacts,” said Matt Peterson, recreation program manager for the Willamette National Forest. “And an area of land can only handle so (much unfettered access) before those impacts start showing.”
Impacts include trampled native vegetation, piled trash and poorly disposed of human waste.
“Some of these areas have been of concern from overuse,” added Beth Peer, special projects coordinator with the Deschutes National Forest. “It was really time to get something done to manage that, so we can maintain the wilderness character.”
Examples of the new permit limits, at places that currently have unlimited self-issue permits available at the trailheads:
• Devils Lake Trailhead, a main access point to South Sister off the Cascade Lakes Highway — Up to 16 overnight groups of 1 to 12 visitors (16 to 192 campers) and 100 day-use visitors.
• Green Lake Trailhead, access to a popular backcountry camping area — Up to 14 overnight groups of 1 to 12 visitors (14 to 168 campers) and 80 day-use visitors.
Cost of the permits is yet to be determined, Peterson said. Forest Service officials have also yet to determine when the permits would go up for sale each year. Permits would be required from the Friday before Memorial Day in May to Sept. 30.
The national forests would hold some of the permits and sell them the day before a trip to the wilderness, Peterson noted. Just how many for each trailhead has yet to be determined.
“There will be permits saved for that last-minute opportunity,” he said.
The permit plan comes in response to increasing hordes of visitors to Oregon backcountry hot spots such as South Sister, the tallest of the Three Sisters volcanoes, and Jefferson Park, an alpine destination on the western flanks of Mount Jefferson.
Visitation to the Three Sisters Wilderness Area increased from about 40,000 people in 1991 to nearly 140,000 people in 2016, according to Forest Service data. During the busiest days of summer hiking season in 2016, nearly 50 groups of 1 to 12 people, or about 50 to almost 600 campers, and near 400 day-use visitors set out from the Devils Lake Trailhead. And wilderness use has increased sharply in recent years.
A couple of trailheads in the wilderness areas already require permits, and have limits on how many the Forest Service issues. One is the Obsidian Trailhead, providing access to meadows in the Three Sisters Wilderness Area from Highway 242. The other is the Pamelia Trailhead, providing access to the Mount Jefferson Wilderness from Highway 22. Under the permit plan, limits for Obsidian and Pamelia trailheads will be staying about the same as they have been since the mid-1990s, Peterson said.
The current permit for Obsidian or Pamelia costs $10 and becomes available May 1. Permits for holidays and weekends sell out fast.
Under the plan, 13 groups of 1 to 12 — or 13 to 156 campers — could embark from either the Obsidian Trailhead or the nearby Scott Trailhead. Another 30 hikers would be allowed to have day-use permits for Obsidian and 12 more would be allowed to have day-use permits for Scott.
Proxy Falls, a popular hiking trail also off Highway 242, would not have permit limits under the plan. Likewise, the plan covers Waldo Lake Wilderness and Diamond Peak Wilderness, both primarily accessed off Highway 58, but no permit limits are in the works. Visitors to the two wildernesses, and to trailheads not subject to limits in the three other wilderness, will still be required to self-issue free permits.
Volunteers and Forest Service officials have tried to clean up and repair the most hard-hit wilderness destinations in recent years, Peterson said.
“While (the volunteer and federal employee efforts) were helping, it wasn’t enough,” he said. “So we felt like there was a need to propose limited entry permits to protect the wilderness.”