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Photo courtesy of James Wilson
Challenges 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 are huge.”

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 a hike.

“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

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