Test Case: Mount Hood
Thinking of clambering around some of Mount Hood's 130,700 acres of designated wilderness this fall? Here's what the rangers will tell you: If you stop on a high-use trail, either to camp or take a picnic break, you should expect to set down your pack only in officially designated sites. Newly conscripted volunteer "wilderness stewards" will greet you with policy information and advice on "Leave No Trace" etiquette. And—as is the case on other Western mountains—visitors will be strongly encouraged to pack out human waste. "We are still managing Mount Hood as wilderness, but not as pristinewilderness," explains Kathleen Walker, a National Forest ranger at the area.
For the time being, bushwacking will still be permitted, as will adventuring on unofficial boot trails, but protecting low-use zones will be a high priority. If flora is trampled or trails begin to erode, the rangers will clamp down on access. In other words: Please follow the herd.
According to the Forest Service, this plan balances the demands of the 100-odd climbers who on busy days scale the 11,237-foot peak's south face with those of the handful of overnighters who trek into the region's more remote areas. Critics, however, see the plan as the undoing of the wilderness system, making what was intended to be solitary wilds all too reminiscent of National Parks. —James Morton Turner
Forgettable Forests Forever
The feds steer muddy boots away from the roads less traveled
This land is your land, but your right to wander it according to whim may be coming to an end. If the Wilderness Recreation Strategy—a new Forest Service plan about to enter a test phase—gathers enough steam nationwide, then heavily trodden forests, streams, and deserts near large cities will be "zoned" for use, not unlike real estate.
The big idea is to divvy up wilderness into two distinct recreation categories based on how intensely the areas are used. The goal: to protect still-pristine "low-use zones" (which aren't popular because they don't include waterfalls, lakes, and other scenic hooks) by limiting visitor use—likely with a reservation or first come, first served scheme. In "high-use zones," which generally include spectacular vistas, new permits may force visitors to camp in designated sites and stick to trails. The plan represents a U-turn from the conventional Forest Service strategy of steering hikers toward lesser-used areas in order to more widely distribute their footprints.
This fall, the Forest Service will launch a hotly debated pilot project for the new program in Oregon's Mount Hood National Forest. Look for tests to follow in California's John Muir Wilderness and New Hampshire's Pemigewasset Wilderness. —J.M.T.
The U.S. Forest Service's overall recreation strategy can be found at www.fs.fed.us/recreation
The complete wilderness zoning proposal is available from www.wildwilderness.org
Read specific federal strategies for Mount Hood at www.fs.fed.us/r6/mthood/wildnu.htm
An analysis of the policy change can be found at www.wildernesswatch.org
For information on a variety of Wilderness Act controversies, see www.wilderness.net
EAR TO THE GROUND
"[This] is a step in the right direction. Mount Hood is a major play area. If resource damage is being done, then limits on use may be necessary."
—Keith Mischke, executive director of Mazamas, a Portland-based mountaineering organization
"We're not opening the gates and saying there are no limits. We're drawing lines in the sand saying there could be limits in certain areas."
—Kathleen Walker, Wilderness Planner, Mount Hood National Forest
"This is the most profound and frightening development in wilderness protection in 35 years. Instead of restricting access, the Forest Service is just changing their standards."
—George Nickas, executive director of Wilderness Watch, a Montana-based conservation group
"Our wilderness is hammered dreadfully. There are only so many folks who can use a piece of wilderness at one time before it stops being wilderness. But the Forest Service is promoting wilderness as a recreational resource. Zoning wilderness only makes wilderness more customer-friendly."
—Scott Silver, director of Wild Wilderness, an Oregon-based advocacy group