Hikers could be turned away at the South Sister trailhead. Mountaineers could see day-of weather dash their plans after having secured a wilderness permit weeks or months in advance. Visitors could be required to buy a permit to use the wilderness.

Any or all of these restrictions are included among five options being considered under the U.S. Forest Service’s Central Cascades Wilderness Strategies Project. The regulations would alter the way the public interacts with wilderness areas in the Deschutes and Willamette national forests, including the Three Sisters, Mount Jefferson, Diamond Peak, Mount Washington and Waldo Lake wilderness areas.

Monday is the final day to weigh in on what’s been a months-long public comment period en route to a decision by the Forest Service about which restrictions to put in place. So far, the Forest Service has received more than 580 comments expressing concerns about the restrictions or applauding the possible changes.

The Forest Service hopes to push back against rocketing user numbers that have damaged popular trails and led to illegal campfires and littering, officials said. Even law-abiding visitors, in too great a quantity, put undo stress on the designated wilderness areas’ fragile ecosystems. Ultimately, the Forest Service intends to return the more popular sections of the five wilderness areas to their pristine, natural states while allowing public access.

The proposed regulations, however, are not groundbreaking. Versions of each of the U.S. Forest Services’ five strategies — ranging from no changes to high-level restrictions to almost all visitors — exist elsewhere.

Of 445 wilderness areas managed by the Forest Service, 32 percent have some sort of a permit system, and about 20 areas have caps on the number of permits given out allowing users access, referred to as a limited entry permit system, said Lisa Ronald, wildlands communications coordinator at the University of Montana’s Wilderness Institute. She manages Wilderness Connect, a public land information platform. Permit systems can be wilderness-wide or specific to a location or trailhead. The group’s website houses the only federally recognized comprehensive database about all Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service and National Park Service wilderness areas.

It’s difficult to compare the regulations of various wilderness areas, Ronald added, because each restriction is tailored to the nuance and needs of a particular wilderness. An isolated wilderness area in Alaska, for example, may have an elaborate bear safety regulation that may not exist in a limited entry wilderness area in Southern California — or potentially, in Central Oregon.

“Permit systems are not unique, yet they are not necessarily widespread, either,” Ronald said. “But they are something that will be increasingly used in wilderness management. I don’t think there is a choice, necessarily, as use increases.”

The Forest Service’s Central Cascades Wilderness Strategies Project expects to release a draft decision in late summer. Those who had already commented on the proposal will have the ability to object to the decision. A wilderness strategy would be implemented by Memorial Day 2019.

‘Untrammeled earth,’ trammeled

Wilderness areas in the Deschutes and Willamette national forests make up 182,186 acres of the combined 3.1 million-acre forests, or 15 percent. In 2016, more than 130,000 people visited Three Sisters Wilderness — a 181 percent increase since 2011. Visitors to the Mount Jefferson Wilderness, which saw nearly 30,000 visitors in 2016, jumped by 119 percent in the same five-year period, according to the Forest Service’s tally of the free self-administered permit system it has operated since 1991.

“When we look at this continued explosive use, it’s just unsustainable,” Forest Service spokeswoman Jean Nelson-Dean said. “We’ve felt the need to take action now so that the legacy of wilderness that we have here in Central Oregon is the same legacy that we will leave to future generations.”

Increased visitors has resulted in eyesores and ecological hazards. Wilderness rangers are often left to clean up the messes left behind, including human waste and makeshift shelters , and to deal with the cumulative impact of too many users.

“Even if people are doing the right things, there are still places that are very impacted,” Nelson-Dean said.

In 2016, 56 percent of the use in the Three Sisters Wilderness — the largest in Central Oregon at 448 square miles — occurred on five of 48 trailheads, Nelson-Dean said.

“It’s a matter of getting people to somewhat plan ahead, encourage people to go at different times and trying to get people to go to other areas that are also lovely parts of the wilderness experience. We’re trying to disperse use over space and time, so we can maintain these iconic places. There are more beautiful spots than just these five, highly used spots. Because that’s part of our message: We have lots of really great country. But not everyone has to go to the same place.”

Five-pronged trailhead

The Central Cascades Wilderness Strategies Project offers five potential strategies, although some characteristics common to all of them are in effect: Motorized equipment and bicycles are prohibited. Group size is limited to no more than 12 people and 12 horses or mules. Storing personal gear is limited to 48 hours. Sites closed for rehabilitation must be left alone. Tethering any pack or saddle livestock within 200 feet of a high water mark of a body of water is prohibited.

From there, the plans differ, and restrictions increase, with plan No. 1 mandating no changes, and plan No. 5 providing the most protection, including limited entry permits for day and overnight use for all five wilderness areas.

Plans No. 3 and 4 were developed primarily with the written feedback from the public, said Beth Peer, interdisciplinary team leader for the Deschutes National Forest. In plans No. 2 through 5, campfires would be prohibited at elevations beginning at 5,700 feet, except for in the Waldo Lake Wilderness. Plans No. 2 through 4 feature a mix of free self-issue permits at wilderness trailheads. Plan No. 3 focuses on high-use areas only while plan No. 4 also accounts for displacement from the high-use areas by implementing more limited entry permits. The Forest Service does not have a preferred plan, Peer said.

Preserving nature

The proposed restrictions will resemble those in place at the Obsidian Trail in the Three Sisters Wilderness and Pamelia Lake in the Mount Jefferson Wilderness, delicate areas with historical and ecological significance.

The Forest Service hopes to strike a balance between and public access to those lands and the preservation of their undeveloped, natural conditions, Peer said. The agency is compelled by Congress to do so.

“That’s an important piece that the public should understand,” Peer said. “We want to maintain access for people. We’re not trying to close it off or shut people out,” she said.

The Wilderness Act of 1964 created the National Wilderness Preservation System. Today, 765 wilderness areas, managed by various agencies, are scattered throughout the country, covering more than 109 million acres — larger than the state of California, according to the Forest Service.

Heightened restrictions and daily use caps would shore up protections in the Central Cascades wilderness areas with those already in place at some of the country’s most popular wilderness areas, such as those found outside large metropolitan areas.

Washington’s Gifford Pinchot National Forest, for example — which is home to Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument and Mount Adams Wilderness, sandwiched between Portland and Seattle — and the Arapaho & Roosevelt National Forests, near Boulder and Denver, Colorado, have seen a mix of user quotas and fees. At Mount St. Helens, climbing permits are required for elevations above 4,800 feet and are sold in limited quantities. In the Arapaho & Roosevelt National Forests, day fees are required in certain recreation areas.

The most regulated wilderness in the country may be the remote, yet intensely popular Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota’s Superior National Forest, Ronald said.

In the Central Cascades, heavily trafficked wilderness hot spots include the west side of the Mount Jefferson Wilderness and the east side of the Three Sisters, which are easily accessible by Willamette Valley residents and Central Oregonians, respectively, Forest Service officials said. Crowds complicate the Forest Service’s dual mission of preserving wildernesses’ pristine character and keeping them accessible to the public.

“When you look at what happens when you have an increase in use, you get both ecological impacts, such as the overuse of campsites, social trail development, the widening of trails — impacts that are more ecological in nature,” Nelson-Dean said. “The crowding is also an impact to the social quality. You get a change in the experience that people go wilderness areas to have.”

Engaged equestrians

At several Forest Service open houses on both sides of the Cascade Range, hikers, mountaineers, equestrians and hunters expressed concerns that their wilderness access may be restricted.

Kim McCarrel, the vice president of public lands at Oregon Equestrian Trails, said her community understands the need for regulation.

“I’ve seen a lot of things (in the wilderness areas) change,” McCarrel said. “They are getting more crowded. I rarely speak to an equestrian who doesn’t recognize that, as well. … The wilderness is near and dear to our hearts.”

Equestrians who visit wilderness areas often launch day trips from one of 10 various horse camps outside the wilderness boundary. Finding parking for their trucks and horse trailers at adjacent trailheads is challenging, with parked cars often blocking spots designated for horse trailers, McCarrel said. Jerry Bentz, the president of the Back Country Horsemen of Oregon, a nonprofit with about 450 members, shares McCarrel’s frustration.

“We haven’t been able to use those heavily used areas for several years,” Bentz said. “We don’t even try.”

Most wilderness horseback riders are fine with reserving a permit and paying a fee. Bentz also acknowledges need for regulation, but he thinks the five strategies feel rushed. Bentz is most inclined to support plan No. 4, which calls for limited entry permits not only at high-use areas but also the areas that would experience overflow.

“The Three Sisters and Mount Jefferson Wilderness areas are crazy crowded. It’s like walking in downtown Portland,” Bentz said. “That’s not what the wilderness is supposed to be.”

Miffed mountaineers

Mountaineers are bracing for restrictions common to four of the five strategies: limited entry permits for day and overnight use. A daily cap on particular dates between May 1 and Sept. 30 means mountaineers will have to lock in their reservations long before they’ll know if the weather will allow the trip.

Chris Jensen, 30, often visits the Central Cascades Wilderness areas. He has climbed and skied most wilderness-designated mountains in the Central Cascade Range. Jensen, of Portland, doesn’t oppose paying fees.

“I care about the environment, how we’re treating it, and about debris getting left behind,” Jensen said. “There is a need for more resources.”

Jensen worries that out-of-town climbers and mountaineers will feel an extra push to reach the summit even if the weather turns bad halfway through an expedition.

“You read about so many climbing accidents that involve bad weather,” Jensen wrote to the Forest Service. “In my experience, having a permit for a specific date encourages climbers to ascend into deteriorating weather conditions. The climber may feel that this is their only chance.”

Mountaineers who frequent Mount St. Helens have needed climbing permits since 1987. To work around the reality of permits being sold out during ideal dates, Cascades Climbers, an online forum, established Purmit.com, a separate website where users can sell or solicit permits.

“The resale site is fine — bit of a crap shoot because people can be so flaky,” Jensen said. “It’s easier than dealing with the official Mount St. Helens Institute website, where all permits are sold out until late October.”

The Mount St. Helens permit system resembles that in plan No. 5 for the Cascades. But local mountaineers won’t have to deal with the additional reservation required for exceeding certain elevations on Mount Adams or Mount St. Helens. In all proposed Cascades strategies, no permits will be required outside the high-use period from May 1 to Sept. 30.

Jess Beauchemin, a personal trainer and nonprofit wilderness guide leader, has read the Cascades proposals. Beauchemin abides by the “leave no trace” doctrine and said her impact on the wilderness areas is minimal. She said the idea of requiring permits is “a slap in the face” that would significantly limit access to wild spaces.

“Those are super important to all of our mental and physical selves,” Beauchemin said, adding that she’s unimpressed by the Forest Service’s interpretation of its usage data.

“The places were you’d expect use to be high — like Devil’s Lake, Broken Top, Tam MacArthur Rim — a lot of their (usage) graphs spiked on the weekends and were pretty low mid-week on almost all of the trailheads across the wildernesses,” Beauchemin said. But under plan No. 5, limited permits would be required even at low-use times.

“It seems like they’re trying to solve problems that don’t exist,” she said.

But the problems are big enough that they prompted local tourism marketers to suggest that tourists visit alternate attractions in wilderness areas, rather than mentioning the most popular sites.

“People are completely entitled to go where they want, but from a marketing perspective, if the Forest Service is seeing that a place like Green Lakes is getting more use than it can handle, what could Visit Bend do to help out?” said Kevney Dougan, president and CEO of Visit Bend, a tourism promotion group.

Visit Bend asked the Forest Service for input on its visitor guide before going to press to make sure the photography and information didn’t mention high-use trailheads, naming instead lesser-known, but just as beautiful areas that can handle the use, Dougan said. This approach has also informed how Visit Bend talks about wilderness areas in its social media channels and blog.

“We’re blessed with an abundance of opportunity, Dougan said. “Let’s make sure we’re talking about places that can handle the opportunity.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7816, pmadsen@bendbulletin.com

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