BEND, OR -- Oregon Republican Congressman Greg Walden met Tuesday with a number of wilderness user groups in Bend to discuss how to manage the growing number of visitors causing damage to local trails. Deschutes National Forest Supervisor John Allen told Walden he’s working with the Willamette National Forest to create a plan for areas like the Three Sisters and Mt. Jefferson Wilderness. "These are Congressionally designated areas, and we have an agency mandate to maintain the character of these wild places; that’s why our two national forests are proposing a variety of management tools that we’re going to consider to hopefully maintain the wilderness character into the future for generations to come."
That plan could include new permits for hikers and other users, to help control how many people visit some of the most popular areas and help pay for maintenance. Rep. Walden supports the idea if the fees collected stay local and pay for trail and resource maintenance. "We have to make sure that the recreation that takes place is done in a managed way, so that we don’t destroy that which we love – especially in these fragile environments. What I heard was a common theme around that. Especially for our wilderness areas, people want to be able to have access, but they realize we can overrun them if we’re not careful." The proposal is similar to how the Northwest Forest Pass helps pay for work, which encouraged Walden, "They [The Forest Service] have a lot of flexibility to use the funds from the Northwest Forest Pass and they plow 80-95% of it right back into improvements for restroom facilities, picnic tables and trailheads, and all that. It sounds like the same would be applied to any kind of permitting system with fees for the wilderness hikes. But that would be plowed right back into trail maintenance, management and a better experience for the hiking public."
Tuesday's meeting also included user groups like the Backcountry Horseman, Oregon Equestrian Trails, Visit Bend, the Bend Chamber of Commerce and the Pacific Crest Trails Association. Most support tighter management and better public education for those visiting areas growing in popularity. In 2011, Allen says the Three Sisters Wilderness saw about 25,000 people; by 2016, that number had grown to 90,000, and not everyone is a responsible guest. Walden says the wilderness is part of Oregon's culture and must be protected. "We want to make sure people have access to their public lands, so you can have the experience that you live here to have. They’re trying to be inventive here, and innovative, and build off of programs that have worked in other forests, so that you can get out to camp and hike and not have a whole city built around you, if you will. Or, leave trash and human waste and dog feces behind." In many cases, he says, it's a case of 'loving it to death.' Walden tells KBND News, "It’s about finding the right balance. And, we love our public lands a lot, and we’ve just got to make sure we don’t destroy them in the process."
The amount of the proposed permits has not been determined. Allen tells KBND News they would likely only be required for the busiest areas that see the most resource damage. He says it would serve to help fund maintenance and push some visitors to other, more underused areas. The Forest Service is finishing up an analysis and expects to have a draft of a new management plan available for public comment by this winter.
Photo: Rep. Walden (right) listens to Forest Supervisor John Allen, of the Deschutes National Forest, at Tuesday's meeting at the Cascade Lakes Welcome Station.