By Jamie Dawson

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A permit system is coming to some popular trailheads in the central Cascades. The road ahead for this system is complex and contentious, but I bet in 10 years we’ll be glad it’s in place.

According to the Deschutes National Forest, some trailheads in the Cascades have seen a 500% increase in the number of visitors in the last five years. Let that sink in: a 500% increase!

Even though I’ve seen the packed trailheads and rubbed shoulders with plenty of hikers on busy trails, that number still came as a shock to me. It made me wonder: Why are so many people flocking to the central cascades wilderness areas? I understand that it’s a stunning landscape, but the other reasons are more interesting and complicated than I expected. Take, for example, the amount of protected lands in our state. Only 4% of Oregon is protected as wilderness, yet we see millions of visitors each year who come in search of “the wilderness experience”.

I go outside in search of many things: solitude, fish hungry for my flies and to get a glimpse of what the rest of the unbuilt world looks like. I bet that some of you go looking for that too, and you’ve noticed that that 4%of Oregon is getting pretty crowded. As someone who prefers hiking alone over a carnival-like experience, seeing numbers like “500% increase” encourages me to go somewhere that’s still quiet — like the Ochoco Mountains northeast of Bend. Ironically, I’m not alone in that thought. Portland State University’s Population Research Center forecasts that the number of people living in Central Oregon will nearly double by 2065. That means an extra 200,000 people living here by the time I retire! With over 90% of Oregonians reporting that they recreate outdoors every year, future visitation numbers in the region are set to continue skyrocketing.

All of our neighboring states (yes, even Idaho) have done a far better job at protecting their natural treasures. In Oregon there remains a major supply and demand issue for protected places — our demand far outweighs our supply. As the number of people living in Oregon continues to grow, will we rise to the challenge, or try to cram everyone into the same few protected natural areas, adding a new permit system every five or 10 years? I, for one, would like to avoid that.

The Ochocos still have a certain kind of magic about them — one that’s increasingly hard to find. You can go out for the day without seeing another human, and wake up the next morning to a Pronghorn calling outside your camp. You can fish for redbands in the shade of a 400-year old ponderosa pine. You can take your daughter or your friend or your father on their first turkey hunt without feeling the unending pressure of another hunter just over your shoulder.

So what’s the solution for a place like the Ochoco Mountains, and Oregon in general? We need to be planning for the future. This means not just looking at the masses of people in the central Cascades today, but also recognizing that there is currently no plan in place for how recreation will be balanced with wildlife and other values in the Ochocos.

The Ochocos are special but they aren’t a secret anymore, so what are we going to do to ensure that their character is maintained? We need to plan ahead today, so we don’t find ourselves wading through this permit system mess in the Ochocos tomorrow. Concerned citizens across the region are already working together on a vision for the future, but they’ll will need support from our congressional delegation — Democratic Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley and Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River — to make it stick. Let’s not wait until it’s too late.

— Jamie Dawson is the Ochoco Mountains coordinator for Oregon Wild.