Comment period open on Central Oregon wilderness permit fees; public meetings set

Last month, we shared news of the Willamette and Deschutes national forests’ decision to implement a limited-entry permit system in three popular Central Oregon wildernesses, starting next summer.

The forests recently released a proposal for specific fees to go along with that new permit system. They’ve announced dates for three open houses, and the public comment period is open through November 25.

The Forest Service has proposed the following structure for the special use permit fee:

  • No special use permit fees for youth 12 and under, though each person requires a limited entry reservation regardless of age.
  • A day-use permit fee of $3 per person required at 19 trailheads. There is no fee at other 60 trailheads.
  • An overnight permit fee of $5 per person, per night required at 79 trailheads.

The permits would be available through the website. The website will add a $1-per-person processing fee for day-use permits or $6 per overnight group. Under the proposal, these permits would be required in the Mount Jefferson, Mount Washington and Three Sisters wilderness areas during the summer season, which stretches from the Friday before Memorial Day to the last Friday in September. About 100 miles of the PCT are affected.

Holders of the PCT Long-distance Permit (for travelers of 500 miles or more) will not be required to obtain this additional permit.

Volunteers working in these wilderness areas will be glad to know the forests intend to reward some level of volunteer service with free passes. They haven’t yet determined exactly how this will work and are welcoming your input.

Mount Jefferson by Brian Martin.

The PCTA’s Take

In general, we don’t oppose the concept of a fee because the money would go toward wilderness restoration, education and trail work. Further, without those funds, it will be difficult for the forests to put administer the new quota system, which they’ve carefully designed to redistribute visitors across the landscape. This is necessary to counter to the current phenomenon of extreme human impacts in the most popular places. While we think it’s reasonable to limit the overall number of users along very popular stretches of the PCT such as the Central Cascades, we’d like for the system to be as simple and affordable as possible, and without unnecessarily impairing access and freedom of movement.

Under the fee structure as proposed, day-users would be charged only at the most popular trailheads (about 11 of them are commonly used to access the PCT). Considering that the currently-required $5 Northwest Forest Pass (a per-vehicle parking pass) won’t be required for folks with these new permits, the prices are not terribly jarring. When adding together the special recreation fee and the reservation processing fee, one person would pay only $4 for a day-hiking permit. For two people it would be $8. For families bringing kids 12 and under, only the adults would have to pay. The nice thing is, folks who don’t want to pay these prices will still have dozens of other trailheads to choose from, both inside and outside wilderness, with no limited entry permit — some only requiring the traditional $5 Northwest Forest Pass.

For overnight users there’s a larger cost proposed. A reservation fee of $6 only would be charged once for a group, but then each person would pay $5 per night. While we’re generally in favor of the special use fee because it will pay for restoration and stewardship activities, the PCTA is concerned that the proposed fee structure for overnight use would quickly add up and become too expensive for many. We don’t want the fees to exclude people who can’t afford a permit. Multi-day backpackers, especially those with low incomes, may be priced out of using this particular 100-mile stretch of the PCT. We believe some kind of price cap is appropriate to keep these fees more reasonable.

Mount Washington by Simon Kerridge

How’s does this compare with other places along the PCT?

On the John Muir trail section of the PCT in California, a backpacker pays $5 regardless of how many nights they are out (plus a reservation fee for each group, $6-10, depending on entry point). To hike the Enchantments in Washington, a person pays $5 per person per night (plus a reservation fee, again $6).  Desolation Wilderness permits cost $5 per person for the first night, plus $5 for the second night, but then the price is capped: nobody pays more than $10 per person even if they are out for a week or more (plus a reservation fee for each group).

The PCTA will be proposing the forests consider capping the proposed $5 per-person-per-night fee after a small number of nights. This would keep the fee reasonable for backpackers or horseback riders traveling the whole 100 miles or spending more than a few nights in the backcountry.

We’re also very concerned about making sure the fees don’t discourage people from visiting the wilderness. The forests have stated they are working with partner organizations and local libraries to develop a system that will allow people to have access to the limited entry areas without paying the special recreation permit fee. The PCTA is committed to collaborating on these solutions, and we hope the public will contribute ideas.

We’d also like to see quota numbers relaxed for trailheads at both ends of the limited-entry area (Breitenbush Lake and Irish-Taylor) for people who, while maybe not Long-distance Permit holders (500 miles or more), are doing a long PCT section hike. Currently those quotas allow only seven groups at a time.

Three Sisters Wilderness by Stephanie Grace.

Open Houses

The Willamette and Deschutes national forests are hosting three open houses for the public to learn more about the proposed special recreation permit fees. The forests will review and consider all comments and use them to inform how the proposal may be adjusted. The public comment period for the proposed special recreation permit fee began on Oct. 9 and will end on Nov. 25, 2019.

Open house details:

  • Salem: Tuesday, Nov. 12, 5:30-7 p.m. — Chemeketa Community College, Winema Center, 4001 Winema Place NE
  • Bend: Tuesday, Nov. 12, 5:30-7 p.m. — Deschutes National Forest’s Bend-Ft. Rock Ranger District, 63095 Deschutes Market Road
  • Eugene: Thursday, Nov. 21, 6-7:30 p.m. — Hilyard Community Center, 2580 Hilyard St.

Contact Matt Peterson at [email protected] with questions or if you require special accommodations.

More Information and How to Comment

Comments about the proposed special recreation permit fee may also be submitted electronically to [email protected] or dropped off at any Willamette National Forest office during business hours.

Additionally, comments may be mailed to Willamette National Forest, ATTN: Recreation Fees, 3106 Pierce Parkway, Suite D, Springfield, OR, 97477.

For more information, see the U.S. Forest Service news release, especially their frequently asked questions link

Author: Dana Hendricks

Dana Hendricks, our Columbia Cascades Regional Representative, is in charge of the PCT from Windigo Pass, Oregon through the Columbia River Gorge. She lives with her husband, Paul, and her little hiker, Gus, just a couple miles from the Bridge of the Gods. She has a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Oregon.