Photo courtesy of James WilsonChallenges expected for summer recreation season posted on 05/01/2021
Last spring, the U.S. Forest Service closed off the Mount
Hood National Forest (MHNF) in response to the coronavirus pandemic. When the
forest reopened in May 2020, it saw “unprecedented use” throughout last summer,
according to Ben Watts, West Zone Recreation Program Manager for the Zigzag and
Clackamas River Ranger Districts.
And Watts expects more of the same this summer.
“I think that people again are going to turn to the outdoors
as an outlet,” he said. “We are anticipating similar levels of recreation and
use this season as compared to last.”
Similar to last summer, Watts noted that travel
restrictions, limited event offerings and people’s wariness to being exposed to
the coronavirus at certain places will contribute to large numbers of visitors
in the MHNF. But making the situation more complex, he added, are areas in the
forest that are closed due to the wildfires from last fall, which he estimated
at more than 200,000 acres.
That might lead to more people concentrated in a smaller
area of forest this year, perhaps similar to what happened with the closure of
some recreation sites in the Columbia River Gorge after the 2017 Eagle Creek
Fire. Thankfully, some of those sites have recently reopened, which may offer
another outlet for outdoor recreationists.
“That’ll help some,” Watts said.
Watts added that the MHNF will try to add extra law
enforcement directed toward the fire closure areas, while also looking to add a
digital pass option for some recreation fee sites and even fee machines at
places such as the Ramona Falls Trailhead. The digital pass, which could be in
place sometime in June, would allow visitors to pay for a Northwest Forest
Pass, needed at many sites to park, through a QR code on their phones.
Watts also noted that access may be limited to Trillium
Lake, with people turned away when all the parking spots have been filled. Last
summer, some visitors parked illegally at the trailhead, which could have
hindered first responders in the case of an accident.
“Emergency access would be really problematic,” Watts said,
adding that something similar may be needed at Timothy Lake.
Another complicating factor for this summer will be from the
high number of fallen trees due to the heavy winds over the fall and winter.
Watts noted that there are problems on many trails in the MHNF, including a
number that have not had any work done to clear and repair them.
“This isn’t a state or municipal park, this is a
wilderness,” Watts said. “These places sometimes don’t get annual maintenance.”
That was echoed by James Wilson, a hiker who writes about
his experiences on his blog www.elevationchanges.com, and who hiked some around
Bald Mountain and the Muddy Fork Loop/ Ramona Falls after last September’s fire
and wind event. In an email to The Mountain Times, Wilson noted that while he
is a highly capable hiker, sections of the trail “strained my ability and
perception of what is a fun day in the woods.”
“This is going to be a while fixing,” Wilson wrote. “It is
not just clearing downed trees off the trail, it is trying to re-negotiate a
way through an old-growth forest that toppled onto itself in every different
direction and ripped much of the tread off the hillside. Some of these trees
Wilson, who hopes to get out this summer and work on a
project that will offer a more thorough map of water sources, camp sites and
the snowpack retreat on the Timberline Trail, added that visitors could
encounter a “sunk cost” type of danger when trying to maneuver through toppled
trees and facing pressure to push on and not lose the time already invested in
“This is when things can go wrong very easily,” he noted.
Watts also called for visitors to be prepared for varying
trail conditions and other hazards, including ensuring camp sites are safe. He
also noted that when visiting the forest this summer, it will be good to have
optional plans if your first choice location is already full.
Watts added that the MHNF is expected to put time and effort
into the areas impacted by last year’s wildfires, which destroyed picnic
tables, fire rings, toilets and more. Meanwhile, concessionaires, outfitters,
guides, volunteer organizations and other partners will have to adhere to the
state’s COVID-19 guidelines, while there will also be signs posted reminding
visitors to maintain social distancing and wear masks.
By Garth Guibord/MT