New permit system to affect the PCT in Central Oregon

Central Cascades Wilderness Strategy, Willamette and Deschutes national forests

What is this new permit system all about?

Visitation to the Central Cascades has increased dramatically in recent years, resulting in overcrowding and impacts to the landscape. The Willamette and Deschutes National Forests, spanning the area roughly between Eugene and Bend, Oregon, have decided to take action, and the PCTA supports our U.S. Forest Service partners in their efforts to protect the wilderness values that are so important to the trail.

These two forests have decided to implement summertime limited-entry quotas in the Mount Jefferson, Mount Washington and Three Sisters wilderness areas. For day-use, these quotas will affect 19 trailheads, and for overnight use, all 79 trailheads throughout these three wilderness areas. (Not all of these trailheads access the PCT; see below for effects on the PCT).

Mount Jefferson Wilderness gains new protection from overuse. Photo by Jeff Louch

The nice thing about the trailhead quotas is that they do not aim to reduce the current overall number of visitors (in fact the quota aggregate exceeds current numbers); rather they are designed to redistribute visitors from popular trailheads to less popular trailheads and/or less popular times. This is because it’s those popular weekends in the popular places where crowds do the most damage. While nobody necessarily likes to be told where they can and can’t go, we have to admit that better distribution of people across the landscape is going to help protect the trail experience and fragile ecosystems along the PCT.

We expect the permit system to take effect in 2020, or perhaps 2021, depending on how long it takes to get through the next phase of the process. So far, the decision to implement a permit system has been made. However, several related decisions haven’t been made yet, because they require a separate process: specifically, the price of permits, where to acquire them, how far in advance, etc. The Forest Service will seek authorization through the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act (FLREA) to charge a stewardship fee for wilderness permits. This will be a public process, anticipated to begin in late 2019.

Three Sisters Wilderness gains new protection from overuse. Photo by Alexander Hormann

While that process will determine many things that are currently unknown, we do know the Forest Service intends for the permit fees to be reinvested within the permit area, including in support of wilderness stewardship projects, visitor education and outreach, trail work and resource monitoring. These are very good things, and the current level of Forest Service funding doesn’t allow for enough of them. We also understand that the reservation system (Recreation.gov) will add on a transaction fee. But there are other fees visitors may no longer have to pay: for visitors with a limited entry wilderness permit, a Northwest Forest Pass trailhead parking permit will no longer be required. The Forest Service predicts that for day use, the majority of permits will be available shortly before the trip starts, and for overnight use, the majority will be reservable in advance. They also anticipate they’ll be able to issue passes as rewards for some level of volunteer service.

How will this affect my PCT trip in Oregon?

About 100 miles of the PCT are affected, throughout the Mount Jefferson, Mount Washington, and Three Sisters wilderness areas. Within those areas:

  • Day-users will be subject to quotas at roughly 12 out of 20 of the trailheads commonly used to access the PCT directly or via feeder trails.
    • These quotas typically allow anywhere between 24 to 60 day users at various popular PCT access points.
    • Day users are counted separately from overnight users.
  • Overnight users will be subject to quotas at all wilderness trailheads in this area. These quotas allow anywhere between 3 to 16 overnight groups, in addition to day users.
  • Holders of the interagency PCT long-distance permit (500 miles or more) are exempt from needing to obtain an additional permit. However, there are restrictions on where camping is allowed.
    • These travelers will not be allowed to camp outside the PCT corridor (1/2 mile on either side of PCT)
    • Nor can they camp in the following areas: Obsidian, North and South Matthieu lakes, Coyote and Shale lakes, and Jefferson Park.
    • These restricted areas generally affect a mile or two of the PCT at a time, with adequate non-restricted areas for camping in between.
  • Multi-day or multi-week PCT travelers (less than 500 miles) can traverse all three wilderness areas after obtaining a standard overnight permit from any of the limited-entry trailheads.
    • Flexibility regarding starting date or entry point may be needed in order to get a permit.
    • These travelers will need to adhere to the entry date and trailhead listed on their permit, or obtain a new permit if their schedule changes.
    • These travelers are not subject to the same camping area restrictions as holders of the PCT long-distance permit.
    • Traveling between wildernesses is only allowed at PCT trailheads; in other words, if one leaves the trail to resupply in town, one may only re-enter the wilderness at a PCT trailhead (and not a sidetrail trailhead).

Mount Washington Wilderness gains new protection from overuse. Photo by Nicole Sieben

The PCTA’s Involvement and Perspective

The PCTA began working with the Forest Service to help shape ideas about the permit system when it was first proposed in 2017. Our main concerns have been to ensure that the permit system be as simple as possible, allowing as much freedom as possible, that opportunities for long-distance travel (with the PCT long-distance permit) are not unduly restricted, that shorter multi-day PCT trips across multiple wilderness don’t require multiple permits, and that volunteers are not restrained by permits when volunteering and that they be rewarded for volunteer service. We are pleased that all of these concerns have been addressed in the final decision. We will continue to work with the Forest Service to monitor results of the new system, and to help make adjustments where needed to protect the PCT experience into the future.

For more information, see the Central Cascades Wilderness Strategies page.

Also, [email protected] is the Forest Service address where you can submit comments regarding implementation of the permit system. Or, to simply join their mailing list for updates on the public process, send a message to that address with the subject line “Contact Me”

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.