Use of the Three Sisters Wilderness nearly tripled between 2011 and 2016. Use figures are dramatically up in several wilderness areas in Oregon’s central Cascades.
The Forest Service is proposing to limit use of five wilderness areas in the Willamette and Deschutes national forests: Mount Jefferson, Mount Washington, Three Sisters, Waldo Lake, and Diamond Peak. In these wilderness areas, a permit system would be put in place to limit the number of wilderness users so as to maintain the statutorily required solitude of wilderness. There would also be a fee. The other wilderness areas (Opal Creek, Middle Santiam, and the Menagerie) in these national forests are not being considered for use limitations at this time.
Why some and not other wilderness areas? The most (ab)used wildernesses in Oregon are generally along the spectacularly scenic Cascade Crest. Lower-elevation wilderness areas tend to include more extensive forest that just isn’t as much of a recreational draw. The Opal Creek Wilderness is within the Opal Creek Scenic Recreation Area, which is being overused, but the overuse is mostly concentrated in the portion of the OCSRA that is not designated wilderness.
It’s not just wilderness areas. Oregon’s only national park, Crater Lake, is receiving record visits. Visitation has about nearly doubled since 2000. Oregon’s state parks are also experiencing record use.
Increased Demand Meets Static Supply
Population is continuing to grow in Oregon vis-à-vis population growth in other states, to the point where Oregon may well get a sixth Member of Congress after the 2020 census. People are moving to Oregon to enjoy our quality of life. Besides the beer and the wine, there is the backcountry and the wild that makes Oregon Oregon.
Growth of visitor use of wilderness in Oregon’s central Cascade Range is due to population growth in the Willamette Valley and greater Bend and nearby cities (a.k.a. LaBendmondville). More and more people seek to experience the pristine high country. Demand is also up at Oregon state parks in the Columbia Gorge, along the Oregon Coast, and in central Oregon.
The rate of population growth, which approximates increased demand to enjoy wilderness and parks, has far outstripped the supply of these natural areas. Congress has neither designated nor expanded wilderness areas in Oregon since 2009. The acreage of National Park System lands in Oregon increased a tad in 2014, when Congress expanded the Oregon Caves National Monument. Few new state parks have been established in recent decades.
One way to address wilderness overuse is to reduce demand. There are too many humans on this earth and in the state. If everyone who wanted children had no more than two, in a generation or two we could be much nearer to a sustainable population. Excessive human population is both a global and a local problem.
In Oregon, though, population increase will very likely continue. The pull on people seeking a better quality of life will increasingly be joined by the push of people escaping climate change. Most scientific models suggest that while climate change is affecting and will increasingly affect Oregon detrimentally, it won’t be as detrimental here as elsewhere. As coastal Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico cities inevitably lose the battle to stay free of salt water, as the American Southwest becomes unbearably hot, as the Arctic becomes unbearably warm, as the Midwest droughts become the norm, Oregon will become a premier climate refugee destination.
The demand for wilderness and parks is most likely to increase despite any best efforts, so what about the supply of wilderness?
Where to Look for More Wilderness
There are two kinds of wilderness. The first is designated wilderness—officially protected by an Act of Congress. This is the wilderness that shows up on the maps and draws the most people. The second kind is de facto wilderness—wilderness in fact but not in law. De facto wilderness can be just as wild and just as natural as designated wilderness, if not more so because fewer people know of these areas. De facto wilderness is the supply to establish more designated wilderness.
In Oregon, there are 12,090,098 acres (but who’s counting?) of de facto wilderness that qualify for inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation System. (In general, a proposed wilderness must be roadless and undeveloped, but the area need not be pristine.) These wildlands can be grouped as either generally forested (which includes rock and ice above timberline) or generally tree-free (in the Oregon High Desert and other desert areas considered part of the sagebrush steppe, a.k.a. the Sagebrush Sea). Most of Oregon’s designated wilderness is generally forested. The only designated wilderness areas in Oregon desert lands are Steens Mountain, Spring Basin, and Oregon Badlands, totaling 210,457 acres.
To go deeper on how much and where of Oregon's protected and unprotected wilderness please see The National Wilderness Preservation System in Oregon: Making It Bigger and Better.
How much acreage is available in each category for wilderness designation? (I am greatly indebted to Erik Fernandez of Oregon Wild and Craig Miller of Oregon Natural Desert Association for these data.)
Forest: The unprotected wildlands in Oregon’s forests total 4,755,000 acres. Oregon Wild has inventoried 3,306,000 acres in 152 roadless areas greater than 5,000 acres in size. They have further inventoried 749 roadless areas between 1,000 and 4,999 acres in size. All meet the minimum eligibility requirements for designation as wilderness.
Desert: Unprotected desert wildlands in Oregon total 7,335,988 acres. The Bureau of Land Management has recognized 2,685,988 acres of Wilderness Study Areas. The Oregon Natural Desert Association has inventoried another 4,650,000 acres of BLM lands in eastern Oregon that qualify for designation as wilderness.
Where is this de facto wilderness? I know precisely. You can too. Here are two books I’ve written on Oregon’s de facto wilderness:
• Oregon Desert Guide: 70 Hikes (2000, The Mountaineers Press)
• Oregon Wild: Endangered Forest Wilderness (2004, Timber Press)
The links are to free online versions of the books. Paper versions of both can still be found from used book sources.
Political Will Is Lagging Public Sentiment
Just hoping that de facto wilderness can remain so because very few people know about it is dangerously wishful thinking. Enough people already—those in the timber, grazing, and mining industries, as well those who enjoy their outdoors astride or in a noisy motorized device—know enough about the de facto wilderness in Oregon to destroy it. Thus, to meet demand, Oregon’s de facto wilderness needs to become designated wilderness. What are the chances of that?
Oregon Wild commissioned a poll that included the following question:
Wilderness areas are national public lands where you can hike, fish, or hunt—but logging, mining, and road building are prohibited. Roughly 4% of Oregon is Wilderness. California, Washington, and Idaho all have at least twice as much.
Do you support or oppose creating more protected Wilderness areas in Oregon?
The results were, at least to me, astounding. 70 percent of the state’s registered voters (the only citizens that count politically) support more, while 14 percent support less. The rest were undecided. Even in rural Oregon, support was 56 percent. Even among Republicans, support was 55 percent. Even among those 65 and older, support was 61 percent.
Yet there is a political disconnect with the Oregon congressional delegation. While most members of our present congressional delegation support additions to the National Wilderness Preservation System, they’ve yet to actually vote for designation of as many acres of wilderness as did some of their predecessors (see Table 1). I assure you, wilderness in Oregon in the last half of the last century was a lot more politically controversial than it is today.
Designated Wilderness Acreage in Oregon Compared with Adjacent States
It’s rather embarrassing. California, sure. Washington, okay. But Nevada? Even Idaho!? Compared to its closest neighbors, Oregon has the smallest percentage of its lands designated as units of the National Wilderness Preservation System (see Table 2).
The last column in Table 2 shows how many additional acres of wilderness Congress would need to designate in order for Oregon to achieve percentage parity with each of its neighbors. Fortunately, we have the wildland acres to do it—if we have the political will.
For more information about potential forest wilderness in Oregon, start with the website of Oregon Wild.
For more information about potential desert wilderness in Oregon, start with the website of the Oregon Natural Desert Association.
Go explore and then get to work.