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New wilderness permit system opaque

The U.S. Forest Service has decided to build a wall of permits and fees to dramatically reduce public access to wilderness trailheads in the Deschutes and Willamette national forests.

It will issue a limited number of permits at 19 trailheads for day use and 79 trailheads for overnight use. And it will start charging a new fee.

What’s the fee? The Forest Service hasn’t decided.

That’s the first of many problems with the new permit system: The public was asked to react to the plan without knowing the fee. How can anyone decide if a permit system is fair without knowing what it will cost? It can’t. Moreover, any fee beyond a nominal charge makes access more difficult for many people.

Congress would have to change federal law so that a fee is considered at the same time as the permit system, but Oregon’s delegation has not championed any change. Thanks for nothing.

A second problem is the Forest Service’s approach. In its decision, the Forest Service writes: “We need to strike a balance between implementing management actions that will reduce recreation impacts, while at the same time are minimal actions necessary.” But these are not the minimal actions necessary. The Forest Service could have gone on a public relations blitz to publicize that wilderness access would be limited unless people stopped being so careless with trash. It could have ramped up enforcement and rangers on the trails. It made no such push. It went right to restricting access and charging a fee.

There is also a loophole in the Forest Service’s decision that people could exploit. Some hunters would not be required to get a permit. Hunters with a “General Archery Deer hunt tag will be exempt from day use limits and be able to scout and hunt in these wilderness areas without a limited entry day use permit.” It makes you wonder how many people will suddenly get a newfound interest in “scouting” hunting locations.

Americans support protection of their public lands. But if people can’t get access to it, support for its protection will erode.