By Erik Fernandez

Oregonians and tourists alike love Crater Lake National Park, as evidenced by the “growing pains” recently reported by The Bulletin. In 2015, the park set a record for number of visitors — a record that was broken just one year later, by 23 percent! As interest continues to grow in our state’s only national park, we need to find creative solutions to preserve the experience and protect the park’s sensitive plant and animal communities.

Spreading people out beyond the rim of Crater Lake is one solution we should pursue, especially since only one-third of the 756,000 park visitors in 2016 explored beyond the rim. If they had ventured out, they would have found inspiring vistas, wildflower meadows, awe-inspiring wildlife, glacier-carved cliffs, jagged spires and unique outdoor recreation opportunities.

The natural treasures beyond the rim of Crater Lake are many: Looking for a hardcore paddling experience? Try the South Umpqua River. To enjoy pristine old-growth forests, head to the Upper Rogue River. Want to see waterfalls? The gushing Rogue Gorge is easy to access, and Toketee Falls on the North Umpqua River is breathtaking.

However, if we are encouraging people to visit these landscapes in the Crater Lake region, we need to ensure that we are also protecting them. Instead, we’re fighting just to keep the trees standing. The Bybee logging project, for instance, will log right up to the park boundary. And another nearby logging project along the North Umpqua River was recently stopped by a lawsuit from Oregon Wild and Cascadia Wildlands.

Crater Lake is our only national park, surprising given that Oregon is home to a number of amazing natural wonders. We simply haven’t protected those treasures, whether they are next door to Crater Lake or in the Ochoco Mountains or elsewhere. We have protected only 4 percent of the entire state of Oregon as wilderness. Respectively, Washington, California and Idaho have all protected at least double what Oregon has at 10 percent, 15 percent and 9 percent. We’re not exactly living up to our green reputation.

Beyond easing pressure on Crater Lake, there are a number of other benefits to protecting the wildlands just outside the park’s boundaries. Protecting the forests means cleaner water; it also means more carbon storage in the fight against climate change. It would go a long way to protect critical wildlife corridors for salmon, bald eagles, wolves and other animals. Plus, we could keep visitors in the region longer, bolstering the tourism economy. And we local Oregonians would have a better chance at finding a parking spot in the park and elbow room out on the trails.

When it comes to protecting and improving the experience at our national parks, we usually turn to the National Park Service. Indeed, despite being woefully underfunded, the Park Service is doing all it can to protect the sensitive plant and animal communities along the rim at Crater Lake. Clear signage, education to stay on trails, and encouragement of the “leave no trace” ethic are all helpful. But as the number of visitors keeps increasing, these traditional measures will not be sufficient.

We treasure Crater Lake National Park enough to put it on our license plates and the Oregon quarter — both are nice, symbolic gestures. But to really show that we care, we need to step up and do a better job of protecting the greater Crater Lake region. To that end we need our congressional leaders like Sen. Ron Wyden, Sen. Jeff Merkley and Rep. Greg Walden to do a better job of protecting these treasured landscapes.

— Erik Fernandez is the Wilderness Program Manager at Oregon Wild and is based in Bend.