Anyone who enjoys hiking or camping in Oregon's national forests should take a minute to comment on a proposed permit and fee system that will make it harder to spontaneously decide to spend a sunny Saturday in the woods. It's far from clear that the folks who will run the program have figured out how to make it the seamless experience it needs to be.
Under the proposal, some of the most popular trailheads in the state will have caps on use and fees for those lucky enough to get a permit. The permit system will apply to trailheads in the Deschutes and Willamette National Forests. Specifically, they'll hit the Central Cascades wilderness areas, including Mount Jefferson, Mount Washington, Three Sisters, Waldo Lake and Diamond Peak.
The U.S. Forest Service proposes charging $3 a person for day-use permits on 19 trailheads and $5 per person a night on all 79 trailheads in the specified areas. There also would be processing fees on top of that.
Make no mistake, limiting access to the trails is necessary. They have become victims of their own popularity. As more people hike or camp, they cause more harm to these irreplaceable natural spaces. Most people don't willfully abuse the forests, but a few bad actors leave behind human and animal waste and cause other damage. Even those with the purest "leave no trace" intentions are not harmless. Thousands of steps on a trail wear it down, widening the trail and creating opportunities for erosion.
Most of the money that the fee program raises — 80 to 90 percent of it — will go into forest maintenance and restoration. Think of it as a user fee. Sure, it would be great if the federal government funded national forests and other federal lands well enough to fully preserve them and keep them accessible, but that hasn't happened in decades. User fees are common.
But the permits and fees need to work as seamlessly as possible. Too many questions remain about how the Forest Service will implement the program.
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How far in advance will permits go on sale? How will officials ensure equitable access to them? Will there need to be a lottery for the most popular weekend days? How many passes will be held for people to be able to hike spontaneously?
We suspect more people decide to hike or camp for a couple of nights spontaneously when the weather is nice than plan it months in advance.
It's important, too, to think about these questions broadly. Hiking and camping are for more than just Oregonians. The Forest Service must develop effective communication strategies to get the word out to visitors from other states. If tourists become disgruntled because they didn't know they wouldn't be able to hike to the top of South Sister, the state's reputation as a great destination could take a hit.
The Forest Service has smart people developing this plan, but they need to hear from users if they're to find a management strategy that will work. Check out all the details online and share your thoughts before the comment period closes Nov. 25.
— The Eugene Register-Guard