How the Central Cascades Wilderness Permit System Will Preserve Trails for Future Generations

To say that the Deschutes National Forest has seen higher use in recent years is kind of like saying that Central Oregon offers “some” outdoor recreation or that we have a “decent” craft beer scene: technically the truth, but nowhere near capturing the whole story.

In fact, the Deschutes National Forest saw a record 3.3 million visitors in 2018, the most recent year for which data was available, and officials estimate that visitorship was a whopping 40% higher in 2020 — with few signs the surge will slow anytime soon.

It seems fitting, then, that the U.S. Forest Service has (after years of planning) announced the launch of the Central Cascades Wilderness Permit System. Starting in the spring and summer of 2021, a permit system will limit the number of day hikers and backpackers on trails throughout the Mt. Jefferson, Mt. Washington and Three Sisters wilderness areas of the Deschutes and Willamette National Forests.

Jean Nelson-Dean, public affairs officer with the Deschutes National Forest, says the timing couldn’t be better.

Surge in National Forest Use Prompts Permit System

As Nelson-Dean explains it, all those additional visitors have dramatic impacts on how we enjoy public lands in Central Oregon. In some cases, those impacts are obvious: Nelson-Dean says that Forest Service rangers have reported a noticeable uptick in garbage left along trails, human waste and toilet paper scattered about (like at No Name Lake on Broken Top), trees being cut down for firewood, and unapproved fire rings appearing at unofficial campsites. Those changes don’t just ruin the beauty of Central Oregon’s outdoor spaces, Nelson-Dean says; they scare away wildlife and force animals from their natural habitat.

In other ways, the impacts of overuse are less obvious — but no less important. Heavier usage of certain trails, for instance, usually leads to hikers going off-trail to give each other space while passing. Over time, those quick (and well-meaning) interactions inadvertently widen the path, trample vegetation, and lessen the “wilderness” experience so many of us seek outdoors. “People just naturally kind of create a larger trail width and, of course, that impacts the overall experience,” Nelson-Dean says, citing the Green Lakes trail as an example of where paths have been widened over time. “It becomes more of a road than a trail.”

Those impacts are exactly what the new permit system is designed to address. By limiting the number of users on each trail, Nelson-Dean hopes nature can reclaim a bit of what made those trails so special — and so well-loved — in the first place. 

Already, Nelson-Dean can point to another trail that benefited from a similar system. 

Obsidian Trail Offers Template for New Permit System

In the early 1990s, the Obsidian Trail — showcasing the alpine beauty of the Three Sisters Wilderness in the heart of the Cascade Range — was overrun. Unleashed dogs romped around open meadows, human waste piled up, and campers angled for sites on the ecologically sensitive shores of mountain lakes along the trail.

A limited-entry permit system was put into place to address the crisis, making the Obsidian Trail one of only two paths in Oregon to restrict use in such a way. Decades later, the Obsidian Limited Entry Area boasts one of the most pristine landscapes in Central Oregon: Wide-open mountain views, thundering waterfalls, piles of glassy obsidian, and meadows covered in summertime wildflowers are just some of the highlights in the bucolic region.

Nelson-Dean hopes the newly permitted trails will eventually enjoy a similar return to their less-trampled states. “Our expectation is that those areas will improve,” she says. “The whole point of this permitting process is to maintain access while maintaining these areas for future generations.”

Learn more about the new Central Cascades Wilderness Permit System, including which trails will be impacted and how to obtain permits.

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