The climate crisis is changing the PCT experience

The 2020 Creek Fire in the Sierra National Forest burned 379,895 acres and destroyed 853 buildings. InciWeb photo.

In early summer, we usually start making plans for an August backpacking trip. From our home in Portland, Oregon, we’re within striking distance of many great alpine and wilderness walks on the PCT, in the Wallowa Range of eastern Oregon or in the jagged peaks of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.

But this year, we’ve bagged all thoughts of a summer hiking trip. We’re opting for the High Sierra in October. The fall will likely be our go-to window for some time, if not for the rest of our hiking lives. We made the choice because of one complicated reason: we’re hoping there will be no smoke. I was in Bishop, California in the spring and folks there said they were locked down for nearly a month with thick smoke last summer.

The changing climate has made wildfire smoke a yearly occurrence in the West. It’s distressing to walk into a thick haze that chokes every breath and diminishes the beauty you’ve come to enjoy, never mind the worry it creates when you have no idea where the fire is burning.

Surface smoke on August 20 inundates the PCT. (PCTA interactive map)

For more than two decades I have treasured Oregon summers for their historically moderate temperatures, minimal humidity, lack of bugs, long days and the sheer magical beauty of the landscapes. Last summer, we holed up for nine days breathing dead air filled with thick smoke. When a breeze finally cleared the air, I felt as though I had just come out of a cave.

This year, record heat in the Northwest killed hundreds of people in Oregon, Washington and British Columbia. It was 116 degrees Fahrenheit in Portland on June 28, the third consecutive record-breaking day. We sealed off our upstairs with a thick blanket, blasted our overworked portable air conditioner on the ground floor and slept on foam pads in the basement.

Our planet is facing a human-caused ecological crisis.

In its latest assessment released Aug. 9, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a body of scientists convened by the United Nations, concluded that a hotter future is certain. Even if we significantly cut fossil-fuel emissions today, Earth’s temperature will rise by 1.5 degrees Celsius within the next two decades, the report says. In the three decades since the group released its first climate change warning, global emissions have nearly doubled.

The West’s extended drought continues, and wildfires are burning yet again. July 2021 was the hottest month on record, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. On July 10, the Furnace Creek Visitor’s Center in Death Valley, California, recorded a high of 130 degrees Fahrenheit, which was the hottest reliably recorded temperature on Earth. Ever. Death Valley hit the same mark last year.

Fires burning in the Western United States on Aug. 20. Screenshot from InciWeb.

The PCT experience may never be the same.

As I write this, the Dixie Fire, California’s largest fire on record, has burned more than 735,000 acres and is still out of control. This fire has also burned a record 74 PCT trail miles, which along with other sections closed from previous wildfires, could take years to restore. Because of extreme fire danger and concerns for people’s safety, the U.S Forest Service closed 10 national forests in Northern California on Aug. 19, forbidding public access to trails and trailheads, including 50 miles of the PCT. In September 2020, fire danger was so severe that the agency closed every national forest in California, essentially closing about half the PCT.

Wildfires have destroyed homes, businesses and communities—entire towns, in fact. Many people have died. The economic toll—from lost business and wealth to the cost of fighting fires—is staggering. There seems to be no end in sight to this awful, destructive pattern. The places we love to play, to seek solace, commune with nature, enjoy our families and get away from our jobs, are forever changing as the planet warms.

I could go on about the complexities and effects that climate change is having and will continue to have on our planet and our fellow humans across the world. But the point I want to dwell on here is that wildfires, intense heat and changing weather patterns are profoundly affecting our nation’s public lands and recreational assets like the PCT. These special places are more than sanctuaries for our growing, pandemic-weary population. They are our lifeblood. They provide our clean air and water. And perhaps most importantly, they provide home to wildlife.

The shifting climate is swiftly reshaping the environments we treasure. As wildfires become bigger, more severe and more numerous, it will affect the PCTA’s ability to maintain the trail and keep it fully open year after year.

The retreat of the Lyell Glacier in Yosemite National Park has been severe. The glacier is expected to disappear in just a few decades. Photos courtesy National Park Service.

At its core, the PCTA maintains and protects the trail. But we’ve reached far beyond that as we often talk about protecting the trail experience. Climate change poses an immediate and existential threat to that experience. When the health of the trail and its condition are degraded, so is the trail experience. Protecting the trail experience means doing our best to protect the landscapes and the diversity of plants and wildlife within them.

Ensuring that the entire PCT corridor is intact and protected is a unique opportunity to enhance the connectivity of large landscapes, conserve biodiversity and build natural infrastructure for climate resiliency. Researchers anticipate that the PCT corridor, which connects deserts, old-growth forests, alpine tundra, grasslands, and rainforests, will be essential for species movements over the next 100 years. The trail is the only natural connection between many of our state parks, national forests, national parks, and other protected lands on the West Coast.

The PCTA cannot solve the climate crisis alone, but some solutions are already deeply embedded within our work. They include our ongoing efforts to complete the trail through private property purchases, which often end the threat of development. We continue to work to protect wilderness from mechanization and other human pressure. Through our government advocacy and partnerships with other trail groups, we are pushing for more robust funding for public lands and iconic trails like the PCT. And we are in support of California’s and the Biden Administration’s 30×30 initiatives to preserve 30 percent of U.S. lands and oceans by 2030.

You can help. You can voice your concerns with your elected representatives. You can vote for those candidates who take this issue seriously. You can donate time and money to the many nonprofit groups working to protect our open spaces, wildlife and recreation opportunities.

We will continue to keep you informed about climate issues and their effect on the trail with the hope that collectively, we can make a difference. We thank you for your time, effort and dedication to the PCT.

Author: Mark Larabee

Mark Larabee is the PCTA's Advocacy Director. He is the former editor of the "PCT Communicator" magazine and co-author of "The Pacific Crest Trail: Exploring America's Wilderness Trail" published in 2016. Larabee is a journalist, part of a team who won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news for The Oregonian newspaper. He hiked the PCT across Oregon for a 2005 series for the paper and has been with PCTA since 2010. He lives in Portland.