Many people turn to the outdoors as a form of relaxation, a way to get away from it all. To get away, more specifically, from other humans.
Some balk at seeing and hearing other humans in the wilderness—so tension arises because the public lands upon which most recreation takes place belong not to just one person, but to the American people as a whole. It might suck to have your moment of repose interrupted by the call of another human, but that person has just as much right to be there as anyone else.
The Wilderness Act of 1964—which set aside 9.1 million acres of wilderness areas across the United States—introduced the notions of "increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization," and set aside those lands "in their natural condition," in order to "secure for present and future generations the benefits of wilderness." Those wilderness areas are just a portion of the state, federal and locally managed public lands where anyone is allowed to recreate, and even camp out, for extended periods of time, often for free.
As Lisa Machnik, staff officer for Recreation, Lands and Partnership on the Deschutes National Forest, puts it, "Part of the discussion always comes down to, these are public lands, and they're open to all."
As the population and tourism numbers in Central Oregon continue to grow, questions around how to handle overuse will continue to arise. One solution, for officials at the Deschutes and Willamette national forests, lies in limiting use and introducing a permit quota system at certain popular trailheads starting in 2020.
Another solution: a public that's educated around its right to use public lands, which could become even more invested in the lands' future, and more involved in its care.
A picture of overuse
It's a typical summer Saturday. The trails are primed after a quick rain, the sun beats into every crevice, the snow-capped mountains and cerulean lakes are beckoning—and next to the Green Lakes trailhead, the visitor is greeted with 100 other cars, which carried in the visitor's many trail companions for the hike ahead. It's scenes like that final one that have many Central Oregonians aiming to put up the "full" sign along the Cascade Lakes Highway every summer.
And it's why the Green Lakes trailhead is one of a handful of sites slated to fall under the new permit system starting next year.
"Finding that balance between allowing people unfettered access—allowing them the freedom to find new places and explore versus getting to the point where we need to take managerial action because too many people have found those places—it's a really tricky thing," said Kevin Larkin, district ranger for the DNF's Bend-Fort Rock Ranger District. "In my experience at least, it's only been achievable on a case-by-case, site-by-site, location-by-location basis."
DNF spans 1.7 million acres, just one part of a vast system of public lands held in trust for the enjoyment of the American people, for the preservation of wild places, and, increasingly under the Trump Administration, for resource extraction. According to data compiled by the Center for American Progress, through a series of executive orders, the current President has removed protections for over 13,498 million acres of public land, the majority of which involve mineral withdrawals.
Between the Forest Service's lands and the roughly 1.5 million acres managed by the Prineville District Office of the Bureau of Land Management, Bend, Redmond and Sisters are literally sandwiched by public lands—representing a nearly endless span of opportunity to recreate somewhere that doesn't involve battling the other cars parked precariously along the Cascade Lakes Highway.
"In general, I don't think that a good portion of the American public understand the opportunities they have to go and camp off the beaten path a little bit, dispersed, and experience their public lands in a very different environment," says Jeff Kitchens, field manager for the BLM's Deschutes Resource Area, part of the Prineville office. "The number of places like that is endless," he said.
So why are so many people duking it out, battling traffic at a handful of popular spots?
Using public lands
Some blame the pervasive use of geotags on social media for the proliferation of people at certain spots. Some point to the work of local visitors' bureaus, tasked with promoting the region. Still others say there's a lack of knowledge by the general public about its right to use public lands.
On that last point, here's the super-fast primer: Everyone, regardless of background or status, has the right to recreate on public lands, and to stay overnight—with some restrictions—for roughly two weeks at a time, depending on the land. In the Deschutes National Forest, for example, the limit for "dispersed camping" is 14 days in one place. After that, users must move more than 5 "road miles" away from that original spot.
"Sometimes there is a lack of awareness about dispersed camping," says Macknik. "A lot of people do it, and there's another huge group of people who don't know that A. it's allowed, and B. what the rules and best practices are around it."
While Machnik encourages users to check with the particular land manager—whether it be the National Forest, BLM or state, county or local land managers—to verify what's allowed on that land and how long they can be there, the general best practices are pretty simple: Leave No Trace, don't bush-whack new trails, put out your fires and don't be a jerk. Pick up your trash, bury your human waste in a cat hole at least 6 inches deep, and ensure you're not doing that human business within 200 feet of a waterway, in addition to choosing a camp site at least that distance from water. If what you're doing is having a negative effect on someone else's experience—such as having a late-night party with lots of yelling—don't do it.
“The opportunity to go out and disperse yourself across the land is an opportunity to reduce concentration, but you also have to do it sensibly and you have to do it in an educated and informed manner, otherwise you take a chance on creating more impacts than on a developed site.” – Jeff Kitchens
The BLM's Kitchens doesn't just work for a public lands agency—he also regularly seeks out opportunities for solitude on public lands. While he recognizes that developed campgrounds and their myriad creature comforts can have their value in terms of managing resources for the greater good, that's not his weekend jam.
Kitchens described how, on a recent trip, he and his family spent two days in a "high country" location fewer than 60 miles from Bend, only seeing one other car in the distance the entire time. Back where he grew up, on the east coast of the U.S., driving two hours might only get one outside the metro area, he said. In Central Oregon, driving for that same span of time means the majority of Oregon is within reach—ensuring he doesn't necessarily have to go where anyone else is staying. He's quick to point out, however, that dispersing people across less-concentrated areas comes with considerations.
"Developed sites were set up for specific reasons—to concentrate use, to manage use and to limit impacts to resources—especially when these sites are adjacent to more sensitive sites or resources," Kitchens said. "The opportunity to go out and disperse yourself across the land is an opportunity to reduce concentration, but you also have to do it sensibly and you have to do it in an educated and informed manner. Otherwise, you take a chance on creating more impacts than on a developed site."
At home on public lands
Public lands are where I met Craig Bierly, retired from a career in aerospace, whose "business card" reads "Doing what I want since 2008."
Bierly is something of a legend in the mountain biking community—though I didn't know him until a day about nine weeks ago, when he was pulling into a semi-established dispersed spot near a bike trail in the Deschutes National Forest and came across my huddled form, hugging a dislocated shoulder and broken scapula.
As a longtime mountain biker, he describes how mountain biking used to be "a lifestyle," and laments how today, it's more of a "competitive sport."
Likewise, he's enlightened me about a life lived primarily on public lands.
"I was a Boy Scout as a teenager and went to Philmont Scout Ranch in '64, at 14, and that exposed me to backpacking. In 1975 I took my first backpacking vacation—my first trip by myself," Bierly explained over beers at the site he occupied one recent night near Bend. "That was in Pennsylvania, so it was on state land. In 1969 and '70 I worked for the Forest Service here in Oregon, and at that point, I learned that you could camp on Forest Service lands without permits or campgrounds or anything."
Today, he knows not everyone has that same knowledge.
"I encounter people at times that just say, hey, where can you camp, and it's like, duh, it's known. Where have you been?" Bierly joked.
Bierly—who moves around on various public lands in the U.S. throughout the year—recognizes that public lands come at a price. Not only is the public paying for the right to use them—but there's also the inherent responsibility to keep things clean, and to give back.
"It's free in terms of I'm not paying for it this way, but citizens are taxpayers, and my taxes go to pay for the public lands," Bierly said. "I have several spots in the country that are kind of a home base. Bend is one of them, Sedona [Arizona] is another. I belong to bike clubs in both places, and when I find trail work in places, I participate. Yesterday, I worked with COTA [Central Oregon Trail Alliance] and we brushed Farewell. It gives me a connection to the community."
Spreading out the load
The impacts of overuse can be numerous, including "biophysical impacts" such as "trampling, campfires and wood collection, tree damage, wildlife disturbance and trash," according to Wilderness Connect, a collaborative website formed by W.A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation's Wilderness Institute at The University of Montana, as well as the Arthur Carhart National Wilderness Training Center and the Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute—both federal agencies. In terms of social impact, "13% of respondents surveyed in 19 Oregon and Washington wildernesses could identify at least one place within a wilderness to which they would not return, with crowding being the most cited reason," the project stated.
Some see the advent of more dispersed camping and recreation spread farther afield as a means of spreading out the load.
Jason Bagby is a local photographer, videographer and the founder of the Cascadia Adventure Film Festival, which makes its debut Sept. 5-7 as Central Oregon's first home-grown outdoors film fest. He's also an advocate for dispersed recreation as a means of reducing impacts in certain areas.
“When we go out and explore, I think we all need to ask ourselves, does this place need more attention? And if it doesn’t, and I still want to post about that, I’m going to tag it responsibly, or I’m going to simply go and try and find a new place to adventure.”—Jason Bagby
In addition to showing films covering water issues, climbing, mountain biking and trail running at the festival, Bagby and his team are debuting an as-yet-unnamed film on sustainable recreation, sponsored by Visit Bend—the entity tasked with promoting Bend tourism.
"A big part of the reason that we're creating this sustainability film is to try and educate, to create more awareness, both for the locals—especially for the locals who are somewhat bitter about, hey, Green Lakes is always busy. Well, guess what, even as a local, there's a lot of other areas that we can venture out into," Bagby said. "When we go out and explore, I think we all need to ask ourselves, does this place need more attention? And if it doesn't, and I still want to post about that, I'm going to tag it responsibly, or I'm going to simply go and try and find a new place to adventure, doing it under the current guidelines and restrictions that the Forest Service currently places on the backcountry," Bagby said.
"Tag responsibly" is a something of a mantra among sustainably minded outdoor enthusiasts of late. What it can mean: Making the choice not to add a geolocation to social media posts, so that those areas don't become subject to over-exposure on social media, which can lead to overuse in real life.
Still, Bagby does draw a pretty direct line between experiencing a place, and the potential to work for its good.
"One of our goals as a film, as a partnership with Visit Bend, is to focus on the areas of dispersement that need traffic," he said. "I think in order to advocate for something you have to have experienced it. I think that's sending people out to an area such as Newberry or the Badlands—that from a distance might not look that interesting—but when you're there and the wildflowers are blooming, it's an incredible place."
Public lands for all
Delving into the topic of public lands and only discussing dispersed recreation is like opening up a can of chili and only eating one bean.
The topic of public lands camping, in itself, conjures the conundrums of homelessness and public lands' use as a refuge for displaced people. It brings up the controversies around the current administration's plays for more mining and oil and gas extraction. It raises the issue of Regional Advisory Councils, and how under that same Administration, their numbers may soon be greatly reduced (see this week's News page). It hearkens us back to the 2016 standoff at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and the topic of grazing fees for ranchers, and what rights we have to make personal profit by using public lands. It brings up any number of issues not even named here.
But as Bagby puts it, "Proper education, proper exposure, proper awareness is the way we can start to advocate for areas and lessen our impact."
As Larkin at the Bend-Fort Rock District said, "The Forest Service is an agency founded very much on the notion that these are public lands for the public to use at their discretion—certainly within bounds. But we're also founded on this philosophical principle of 'the greatest good for the greatest number for the longest amount of time' and that's one of our foundational ethics. And so we have an obligation to do what we need to, to maintain conditions so that the next generation and the generation after that and the generation after that can have that same experience when they go to a place—that they don't go to a degraded landscape that's been beaten down over years and decades."
For Kitchens, the solution lies not just in educating people about the many places they can go—but also in looking at public lands more holistically.
"I do believe that moving forward we do not have the ability to simply look at one land management ownership or one land management area in tunnel vision anymore. We have to start looking at things collectively," Kitchens said. "We have start to looking collectively, have to start creating strategies, that as we get this increased use, we are able to provide enough outreach and information to hopefully disperse the use so that not everybody is going to one certain area at a certain time of year."
Stay tuned next week, when we continue our coverage of public lands, looking at the current regulatory environment.