Final decision: Permits required for hiking Oregon's Mount Jefferson, Three Sisters beginning 2020
Zach Urness, Salem Statesman Journal Published 11:05 a.m. PT May 10, 2019 | Updated 1:29 p.m. PT May 10, 2019
A major change to the way hikers and campers experience three of Oregon’s most popular wilderness areas was finalized Friday.
The U.S. Forest Service announced that beginning in 2020, a permit will be required to camp anywhere in the Three Sisters, Mount Washington and Mount Jefferson wilderness areas.
A permit also will be required to day-hike from 19 of the most popular trailheads in the three wilderness areas, which amounts to 450,000 acres of Oregon’s most iconic backcountry.
Only a limited number of permits will be available at each trailhead, in an effort to limit the number of people on the trail after skyrocketing numbers brought increasing damage to areas protected by the highest form of environmental protection.
The permits will cost at least $6, but the final amount is being determined in a separate process that will be announced later this summer.
“We are proud to issue this decision to protect the character of these special places for future generations,” Forest Service supervisors John Allen and Tracy Beck said in a statement.
(See below for list of trailheads that will require a permit).
The decision, which has come together over the past two and a half years, is a more scaled-back version of an earlier plan issued this year.
The final version limits day-hikes on the 19 most popular trails, in contrast from the originally planned 30. At one point early in the process, the Forest Service considered a permit system for the Waldo Lake and Diamond Peak wilderness areas as well.
"As we went through the public meetings, the thing we heard consistently was that folks only wanted us to focus on the most high use areas now and then adjust in the future," said Matt Peterson, who led the project for the Forest Service.
Even so, the plan represents one of the nation's largest efforts to conserve land from overcrowding by limiting access. While many wild places across the West limit overnight use, few also limit day-use.
How will it work?
Under the new system, each wilderness trailhead will have a quota of overnight and day-use permits visitors will need to purchase when visiting between Memorial Day weekend and the last Friday in September.
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.
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."
For example, a permit to climb South Sister or backpack to Green Lakes Basin or Jefferson Park will likely be a challenge on peak weekends.
Cost of permits?
The cost of permits and how hikers will purchase them is being decided separately and has not been announced.
However, the permits will cost at least $6 based on the vendor fee required by Recreation.Gov — which the Forest Service is required to use. Officials said there would be an additional fee to pay for increased enforcement of the new regulations.
That means the cost could reach $10 or more. The cost of the permits has been a major source of controversy in discussions of the program.
“Requiring a fee-based permit system puts wilderness out of reach of low-income individuals,” wrote Holly Scott of Bend in objections to the plan earlier this year.
Many hikers stressed that hiking is one of the few mostly free activities remaining.
“For those of us who are below the poverty line, hiking is our go-to entertainment,” wrote Sarah Yost of Dallas. “We budget the gas money for each trip, and buy our yearly forest pass when we can afford one after our tax return.
“I'm afraid of the impact that charging an additional fee will have on those of us who can barely afford to get there in the first place.”
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. 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 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.
The trailheads impacted
Here is a list of the trailheads that will require a permit to day-hike beginning in 2020. All trailheads in the three wilderness areas will require a permit for overnight stays.
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.
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.
"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, 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."
More: In the 1990s, this Oregon wilderness was overrun. Here's how they saved it
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."
This story will be updated throughout the day.