When it approved the Wilderness Act in 1964, a high-minded Congress compelled federal land managers to balance what, out here in the real world, cannot easily be balanced. The act stipulated that wilderness areas should be “protected and managed so as to preserve … [their] natural condition.” It also determined that wilderness areas should “be devoted to the public purpose of recreational, scenic, scientific, educational, conservation, and historical use.”
Congress may not have realized 53 years ago how difficult it would be to strike a reasonable balance between preservation and recreation. But that difficulty is on center stage in Central Oregon, where free, convenient and unconstrained access to wilderness trails may be on its way out.
The problem: A lot of us are using land that was preserved for our use, and some of us aren’t using it responsibly.
The proposed solution: Everyone pays. Excessively.
Five wilderness areas managed by two national forests, the Willamette and Deschutes, are the focus of a project that seeks to address “concentrated and increasing recreation use.” While use is growing in all five wilderness areas, the biggest boom — surprise! — is happening largely along the Cascade Lakes Highway west of Bend.
From 2011 to 2016, according to the Forest Service, the number of visits to the Three Sisters Wilderness, Oregon’s second biggest, almost tripled. Although the wilderness has 47 trailheads, a mere five trailheads accounted for 55 percent of all use in 2016, and just two trailheads — Green Lakes and Devils Lake — accounted for about 28 percent.
The popularity of these two trailheads is simple to understand. First, they’re less than 30 miles from Bend, the region’s biggest city and tourism hub. Second, they provide access to places a lot of people want to visit, including the summit of South Sister, Oregon’s third-highest mountain.
The combination of convenience and desirable destinations explains the popularity of other high-use trailheads in the Three Sisters Wilderness, including Tam McArthur Rim and Lava Camp Lake, which are not far from Sisters.
It also highlights why the Forest Service’s response to growing visitation is so problematic.
Intent “on reducing use levels in some areas,” the federal agency would like to establish day-use quotas at more than two dozen of the most popular trailheads in the Three Sisters Wilderness. Eventually, it may seek to charge fees, as well.
Putting a lid on usage is necessary, in large part, to reduce the impact of irresponsible visitors, including those who leave behind “trash, abandoned gear, human waste, toilet paper, and dog waste.” Too, high usage “minimizes opportunities for solitude and unconfined recreation.”
It’s hard to believe that many of those who bring Fido and Junior to the Green Lakes Trailhead on a nice Saturday expect to have the forest to themselves.
However, the Forest Service is right to be concerned about bad behavior. Nothing says “wilderness experience” quite like trailside Snickers wrappers, Gatorade bottles and worse. But does bad behavior by some users necessarily argue for a quota, and maybe a fee, for all users?
Before Forest Service officials move further in this direction, they should consider what they’re proposing. They’d like those who live in and visit a booming area built on access to the outdoors to drive farther, and at greater expense, to wilderness trailheads that lead to places they don’t particularly want to visit. Either that or cross their fingers and hope to score in the permit lottery.
This is a recipe for resentment and creative noncompliance.
Before choosing the nuclear option in the Three Sisters Wilderness, here’s hoping the Forest Service opts to exhaust the limits of the less-restrictive components of its visitor-management proposal. These include encouraging people to use less popular trailheads, within wilderness areas and outside of them. Many people who flock to the Devils Lake and Green Lakes trailheads may not be aware of many attractive and less-crowded alternatives.
It makes sense to increase the presence of rangers in high-use areas and explain to visitors what should — and shouldn’t — happen in the wilderness.
For the purposes of enforcement and education, it’s good news that so few trailheads account for so much usage, that almost 90 percent of usage occurs during only three months (July, August and September), and that more than 40 percent of usage takes place on weekends. Knowing where and when to deploy people shouldn’t be difficult.
And it wouldn’t hurt to give some thought to another option listed in the proposed action: “installing primitive latrines.” The defecation problem is concentrated in a handful of predictable areas, including the South Sister climbers’ trail, the mountain’s summit and other places accessed via the Green Lakes Trailhead, according to Lisa Machnik, staff officer for recreation on the Deschutes.
Latrines, as man-made structures, aren’t ideal additions to wilderness areas. However, says Machnik, they have been installed in some other wilderness areas following a determination that their benefits outweigh their erosion of wilderness character. Again, difficult balancing acts.
The Forest Service’s proposal is the start of a long process that will evolve significantly by the spring of 2019, when officials expect to implement the regulatory scheme that prevails, says Jean Nelson-Dean, public affairs officer for the Deschutes. While the outcome of this process may be impossible to predict, the solution that best serves Central Oregon will be one developed with a thumb on the “access” side of the scale.
The Forest Service, by the way, has extended the comment period for this proposal to the end of July. Comments may be submitted via email to comments-pacificnorthwest- email@example.com.
— Erik Lukens is editor of The Bulletin.