Exploding usage is putting severe wear and tear on wilderness areas across Sisters Country. A new permit system will limit the number of people who are on the most-used trails. photo provided
Exploding usage is putting severe wear and tear on wilderness areas across Sisters Country. A new permit system will limit the number of people who are on the most-used trails. photo provided
As thousands more people come to Sisters Country each year looking for untrammeled wilderness experiences, the Forest Service is initiating a long-delayed permit system for some local trails.

Reservations for the permits open at 7 a.m. on Tuesday, April 6, at www.Recreation.gov. Enter “Central Cascades Wilderness.” Users are encouraged to go to the site before Tuesday and open an account.

The limited-entry permit system for day and overnight use applies at 19 of the 79 trailheads across the Mount Jefferson, Mount Washington, and Three Sisters wilderness areas from the Friday before Memorial Day through the last Friday in September.

Some permits will be available for the full season; others will be available on a rolling seven-day basis (see below).

“For those folks who want to be spontaneous, there will be permits (on an ongoing basis) and for those who want to plan ahead, permits will be available on April 6,” said Forest Service Spokesperson Jean Nelson-Dean.

“Not every trailhead will be the same,” she noted. “When it opens on April 6, they’ll see the actual number of permits available for each trailhead.”

All campfires will be banned above 5,700 feet in Mt. Jefferson, Mt. Washington, and Three Sisters Wildernesses, as well as in some lower areas.

The permit system was slated to go into effect last spring, but was pushed back due to the COVID-19 outbreak. The pandemic actually seems to have accelerated the trend that caused the Forest Service to inaugurate the program in the first place: more and more people hitting trails in the Cascades.

Certain trails have seen 15-20 percent increases in use each year, and the impacts — from simple wear and tear to garbage and waste left behind — have begun to materially affect the health of the forest and the quality of the wilderness experience.

Nelson-Dean told The Nugget that the Tam McArthur Rim Trail has seen a 300-percent increase in use over the past five years, 20,000 trekking into the Three Sisters Wilderness from that trailhead annually.

“Tam McArthur had been a sleeper sort of trail that actually didn’t get a whole lot of use,” Nelson-Dean said. “Then it just went off the charts. Last year was just like an overwhelming increase. It was extremely difficult to manage.”

She noted that there are 35 trailheads that lead into the Three Sisters Wilderness. Five of those trails took 55 percent of the use.

“Part of the permit plan is to spread use across space and time,” she said. She said that users are encouraged to “maybe choose a different trail than the very most popular trailheads.”

Nelson-Dean says that she understands that a permit system for the wilderness in our backyard is distasteful to some. But, she notes, it is hoped that the enhancement of the experience will be worth it — from simply being able to find a place to park at a trailhead to avoiding the crowds on the trails.

“We certainly hope that most people will comply,” she said. “It will give people a better experience. They’ll have places to park; you’ll have more solitude.”

While wilderness rangers will be empowered to enforce the permitting system, and those without permits are subject to a $200 fine, enforcement is not being emphasized.

“A lot of it is going to be about education, getting people to understand,” Nelson-Dean said.

The Forest Service will expand or contract permit availability based on impact.

Reservations for limited-entry wilderness permits will open at 7 a.m. on Tuesday, April 6, at www.Recreation.gov.

Overnight use availability:

• 40 percent full season available on April 6. 

• 60 percent available over a seven-day rolling window. 

Day use availability:

• 20-50 percent of a trailhead’s full season will be available on April 6. 

• 50-80 percent of a trailhead’s permits will be available over a seven-day rolling window. 

Reservations can also be made by calling 1-877-444-6777. Permits will be at Deschutes and Willamette National Forest offices, but offices may be closed due to COVID-19 restrictions. The Forest Service strongly encourages online reservation.

Processing fees will be charged $1 per permit per person. Overnight use permits will be charged $6 per trip. Overnight permits can include up to 12 people for a trip of up to 14 days. There are no permit fees other than the processing fee. The Forest Service decided to not have a special recreation permit fee at this time. If that decision changes, there will be a public-engagement process on any potential future fees.

“Those funds don’t come back to the forest,” said Forest Service spokesperson Jean Nelson-Dean. “Those are just the administrative costs of having a permit system.”

To avoid permit hoarding, people only can have five overnight limited-entry permits at a time reserved. People should only reserve permits they know they will use. Once the ending date of a permit has passed, an individual can make another overnight reservation.

If someone decides not to use their limited-entry permit, the Forest Service encourages them to cancel their permit to allow others the opportunity to reserve it and go on a trip.

Hikers who enter one of the wildernesses from a wilderness trailhead will still need to have a permit that is associated with the trailhead closest to their point of entry into wilderness. For day use this could be a permit from either a limited-entry permit trailhead or a self-issued permit trailhead. Avoiding entry from a trailhead does not remove the requirement of a limited-entry permit if one is required.