BEND, Ore. — After eight months and more than 500 comments from Oregonians, the U.S. Forest Service is closing in on a proposal that could protect central Oregon’s most scenic areas from overuse.

The Forest Service kicked off the project in the spring by holding public meetings to gauge interest in changing the way trails and campgrounds in five popular wilderness areas, spanning up to 530,000 acres in the Deschutes and Willamette national forests, are managed. Today, officials are optimistic a decision for the project — known as the Central Cascade Wilderness Strategies Project — will be released by summer.

“Folks understand and agree that there’s a need to figure something else out,” said Matt Peterson, project leader for the Willamette National Forest.

As central Oregon and its tourism sector have grown in recent years, the number of visitors to nearby public lands has increased as well.

The region’s wilderness areas — lands governed by the federal Wilderness Act of 1964, which are held to stricter standards for protection and enhancement than the rest of the forest — have not been insulated from the growth.

According to a document released in May, visitation to the five most-used trails in the Three Sisters Wilderness Area increased by between 249 and 878 percent between 1991 and 2016. The increase has led to additional trash, tree damage and soil erosion in the wilderness areas.

“Current trends suggest that the character and condition of these wilderness areas are being negatively affected to the degree that changes to visitor management area (are) warranted,” the document reads.

Around a year ago, the Forest Service began looking at visitor use across seven wilderness areas with an eye toward preserving those areas for future generations. Two public meetings held in Bend during March each drew around 100 people, according to Beth Peer, special project coordinator for the Deschutes National Forest.

At the end of May, the Forest Service released a proposal for the affected wilderness areas, which discussed creating a limited entry permit system for certain day-use areas and all overnight campers in wilderness areas, along with imposing restrictions on campfires above certain elevations.

Peer said the proposal drew more than 500 comments, from approval to refusal to support any new regulations. In a November newsletter, the Forest Service noted that many of those commenting were concerned the proposal was too broad and supported restrictions on only the busiest trails in the wilderness areas. Peer added that a number of comments expressed concerns about the loss of spontaneity that would result from a more advanced permit system, but noted that the current system has required a free self-issue permit at all wilderness trailheads for around 20 years.

“We feel like we’re building the work done in the 1990s,” Peer said.

Dana Hendricks, regional representative for the Pacific Crest Trail Association, said the organization met with Forest Service officials early in the summer to talk about the project. Hendricks said hikers coming through Oregon on the Pacific Crest Trail have to deal with a confusing mix of permits in wilderness areas along the trail. Going to one standard permit could simplify the process, Hendricks said.

“These systems have been put in place piecemeal over the last few decades,” she said.

The Forest Service will incorporate public comment to come up with specific alternatives, and draft an environmental assessment by next spring. A separate, parallel public planning process, focused on the logistics of a fee and permit structure in wilderness areas, will begin in the spring, according to Peterson.


Information from: The Bulletin, http://www.bendbulletin.com