Public Lands Getting HAMMERED by Crowds

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SWriverstone
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Public Lands Getting HAMMERED by Crowds

Post by SWriverstone » February 1st, 2021, 4:43 pm

2020 has been a rough year for public lands. Despite passage of the Great American Outdoors Act (the future of which remains to be seen), public lands in Oregon (and California as well) have been hammered by dramatically increased use. I've seen this firsthand as I spend literally every weekend up in the Oregon Cascades. I've been going to the same places for many years, and have absolutely noticed a huge uptick in crowds in 2020.

What's really frustrating is the crowds haven't diminished during winter; if anything, they have become worse because the number of places to recreate that are accessible in family sedans is far lower than in summer.

I'm a longtime backcountry XC skier. For years I've been going up to the Willamette Pass area to places like Gold Lake and Salt creek sno-parks. Yes, these places have always been popular, but this winter, they have become complete sh*tshows of crowds—to the point where unless you show up early in the AM you won't even find a parking place and state troopers are ticketing people for parking along Rt.58 and random groups of people are trudging down the shoulder of the highway with kids, dogs, babies, etc.

This past weekend I didn't even slow down at Willamette Pass (which yes, was a complete sh*tshow) and decided to drive to Newberry Caldera to try skiing some trails there. I arrived late-morning on Saturday to what could only be described as the "snowmobile apocalypse"—the lots at 10-Mile Sno-Park literally looked like Sturgis, SD except for snowmobiles. There were over 100 big trucks towing flatbeds there, and all I could hear for miles was the roar of snowmobiles echoing off Paulina Peak.

Frustrated and depressed, I drove south on 97 toward Klamath Falls until I found a place to ski in Fremont-Winema NF that was mostly empty.

A few weekends ago I drove up a remote forest road (in Willamette NF) to do some XC skiing. I knew from previous experience that there was snow starting at around 4k', so my plan was to drive to just before the snow and ski from there. This is a road that gets almost no traffic year-round. As I approached the snowed-in part of the road, I saw three young men walking toward me. They frantically flagged me down and explained that they had tried driving up the road to get some "cool drone shots" and gotten their sedan stuck in the snow. They were wholly clueless and unprepared for being stuck on a remote forest road in the middle of winter, and had I not driven up they could easily have been hiking for miles to find help.

Still another weekend I was out for a ski on the PCT in Diamond Peak Wilderness. On my way back, as I got within about 2 miles of Gold Lake Sno-Park, I saw something odd-looking on the trail up ahead. As I drew closer, I realized (to my horror) that it was a teenage girl practicing her rhythmic gymnastic moves with the sticks with long streamers. Her parents and brother were literally laying on blankets in the snow along the trail, and the tweener boy was (I'm not kidding) playing games on his Nintendo Switch while his parents looked admiringly at their daughter's rhythmic gymnastics moves. All of this ***in a national forest in the snow!*** It was totally surreal. (Not in a good way.)

I've seen some stories about this issue in the media over the past 6 months, and also seen depressing emails from USFS personnel bemoaning the unbelievable amounts of garbage and toilet paper everywhere. So I'm not imagining it.

Why am I posting about it? Mainly just to hear others' thoughts, and to say that this has been a wake-up call of sorts for me. After decades spent recreating on public lands (and practicing LNT principles all the time), it's been a shock to me to see just how easy it is for the relative solitude that we've taken for granted to be annihilated. For the first time in...well, EVER...it's not enough to just drive to the nearest national forest trailhead to go for a hike and be mostly alone. Now, to escape the mobs, you pretty much have to drive much farther (e.g. to Eastern Oregon) or backpack at least 10 miles into wilderness (and sadly, even then you won't be alone).

It might not be as bad if all these people were at least somewhat aware of wilderness ethics and LNT. But in the past year, I've passed countless people hiking in flip-flops, people blasting music from bluetooth speakers as they go down the trail, people pooping on the edge of the pavement in parking lots and leaving their toilet paper...the list goes on and on. These are largely not "outdoors people." My impression (which I know is not universal but it sure seems that way sometimes) is that these are people who view public lands as just another city park.

I guess the really big question now is...how many of these people will remain out on public lands when/if the pandemic is over? Versus how many will go back to their football games, their house parties, their bars, their shopping malls, and their music festivals?

Scott

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drm
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Re: Public Lands Getting HAMMERED by Crowds

Post by drm » February 2nd, 2021, 7:57 am

Yes, we've all seen it in varying degrees and none of us can answer how it will all end up. It seems unlikely to me that it will go 100% back to "the way it was", but maybe part way. I would have the hopeful guess that the people who seem to care least for the wilderness are probably the ones who will not keep coming as much. But who knows.

We live near a city that is close to the mountains and already had a strong base of public lands users. Where I grew up, the nearest really decent mountain range was a six hour drive and there weren't really any significant cities much closer than me. Of course that meant I couldn't go very often, but I never had to worry about crowds.

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Re: Public Lands Getting HAMMERED by Crowds

Post by bobcat » February 2nd, 2021, 8:36 am

I'm a little more philosophical about this, I guess.
SWriverstone wrote:
February 1st, 2021, 4:43 pm
these are people who view public lands as just another city park.
The city parks are chocablock, too. During the week, I run through neighborhood streets and parks, but since COVID began I've run around the parks to avoid the crowds which seem to be there almost any time of day. In fact, everyone is taking to heart the advice that you can practice safe socializing in the outdoors with a little distancing.

The irony is that, on the political side, the more people who use public lands increases the chances that there will be more secure funding for them.

Many, many old favorites that were lightly peopled have become inundated. There's a definite steepening of the curve during COVID, but the trends were already there. Oregon's population has increased 66% in 30 years. Cities like Bend and Hood River market themselves at outdoor destinations, and the direct result is that there is heavier use and then more restrictions to control that use.

Coyote Wall was my favorite semi-secret place to go in the '90s. Well, look at it now - and that's got nothing to do with COVID.

Oregon is still relatively unpopulated, and there are plenty of lesser known places to go. I did a summer trip across the Blue Mountains three years ago where I hiked in six wildernesses in six days. I didn't meet a single other human on any of the trails! I have no such expectations of the Three Sisters or any place that's touted in Backpacker magazine. I've also done a lot of hiking in Europe and Japan where you simply don't expect solitude at all during "hiking season", and there's no such thing as wilderness. Oregonians can consider themselves lucky - the size of the U.K. with 15% of the population!

I do agree the marked cross-country ski trails are becoming exponentially more popular with the upsurge in recreational snowshoeing. That brought a whole new contingent of people into the winter mix, but that was a trend that began years before COVID. I hardly ski the blue diamond trails anymore.

Basically, I don't begrudge users of any stripe heading into the wild blue yonder. It's certainly their right just as much as mine. I am picking up more trash than before, but generally I'm doing a pretty good job, I think, of avoiding the busy places, or I just get there early!

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Re: Public Lands Getting HAMMERED by Crowds

Post by Guy » February 2nd, 2021, 8:39 am

I guess this will be an unpopular reply but I don't think its nearly that bad if you choose where and when you go. I hike pretty much every Sunday all year long rain or shine.

When I hike in the Gorge I don't expect nor do I deserve solitude at the expense of others enjoyment by limiting access for example. A few weeks ago I hiked the reopened Franklin Ridge Loop in the Gorge. 10 miles we saw about 6 people. Two weeks ago I hiked the gooseneck loop at Cotton Wood Canyon we arrived a 9:15 2 cars in the day lot. We didn't see anybody until the final two miles on the way out.

If you go to White River on a Sunny Weekend it will be an absolute zoo of people but 90% don't go more than a mile and only a tiny fraction hike up onto Boy Scout Ridge where there is ample solitude to be found.

I find trash at trail heads is always 10 times worse if a garbage bin is left there. The trouble is a garbage bin gives people who otherwise wouldn't to leave their Garbage behind, don't leave it there in the first place if you are not going to empty it.

I agree with you on the music but hiking in Jeans, flipflops, barefoot or topless (I've seen it all). It has no negative effect on the environment.
Still another weekend I was out for a ski on the PCT in Diamond Peak Wilderness. On my way back, as I got within about 2 miles of Gold Lake Sno-Park, I saw something odd-looking on the trail up ahead. As I drew closer, I realized (to my horror) that it was a teenage girl practicing her rhythmic gymnastic moves with the sticks with long streamers. Her parents and brother were literally laying on blankets in the snow along the trail, and the tweener boy was (I'm not kidding) playing games on his Nintendo Switch while his parents looked admiringly at their daughter's rhythmic gymnastics moves. All of this ***in a national forest in the snow!*** It was totally surreal. (Not in a good way.)
I would just find this funny. if it was 2 miles out then it means a family who may not have spent much time outside in the past hiked 4 miles in the snow. I think that's a good thing. Their actions didn't cause any damage they just didn't jive with your (or my) ideas of what people go to the mountains for.
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Re: Public Lands Getting HAMMERED by Crowds

Post by jessbee » February 2nd, 2021, 9:13 am

bobcat wrote:
February 2nd, 2021, 8:36 am
Basically, I don't begrudge users of any stripe heading into the wild blue yonder. It's certainly their right just as much as mine. I am picking up more trash than before, but generally I'm doing a pretty good job, I think, of avoiding the busy places, or I just get there early!
This 100%.

Public lands area, in fact, public and they're good the public to use. Now that more people have been made aware of this fact, use has gone up. Also, as has been mentioned, more and more people are moving here (and y'all keep having babies), so with more humans nearby there's bound to be more use.

I sure hope that this means some of these people will be greater advocates for federal money going to support the agencies that manage these lands. Some of these people will become more educated about LNT. And some will go back to shopping at malls and watching sports at bars once those options return.

There is no right to solitude in any given landscape at any given time, for anyone, anywhere. This is coming from a person who absolutely thrives on solitude. I know that's my responsibility to root it out. And if I end up in a crowd somewhere, I have learned my lesson and will do better planning the next time.

Since the first lockdown last March I have discovered so many new places that had been off my radar. I've probably experienced more solitude in the past 365 days than any other year I've been a hiker. On the flip side, that's why I never write trip reports anymore. Because information=crowding.

I'm actually grateful that so many people seem to not mind being surrounded by people and noise. They can recreate in those popular areas and that leaves the rest of the land wide open for users who prefer the quiet.

I'll admit that it took a mental adjustment for me, from "get off my lawn" to "hey I am psyched that so many people are reaping the benefits of being outside." We are all very different and appreciate outdoor recreation in different ways, and that's ok. Now let's convince our leaders to spend more time and resources on education, improving access and developing a culture that welcomes a variety of users and encourages people to take good care of shared spaces.
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Re: Public Lands Getting HAMMERED by Crowds

Post by retired jerry » February 2nd, 2021, 9:30 am

yeah, it's good more people are out there

it's hard to assess whether things are better or worse now than in the past, human memories aren't good at this

In about 1970 I went up the Eagle Creek trail and filled several garbage bags with garbage - people have always strewn garbage around.

There's more LNT awareness today I think

I've done several recent trips - Rogue River, Badger Creek, Deschutes River, Metolius River. Almost no one when you get a couple miles from the trailhead, the same this year as previous years. A few on the weekends.

I did a couple trips last summer - Goat Rocks, Mt Adams. Very busy. Like in previous years.

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Re: Public Lands Getting HAMMERED by Crowds

Post by OneSpeed » February 2nd, 2021, 9:52 am

I don't know what the solution to any of this is. And as a guidebook author, I admit to being quite conflicted about the whole thing. Personally, though, and based on more factors than this, I have settled on a solution: leave Portland.

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Re: Public Lands Getting HAMMERED by Crowds

Post by dirtman » February 2nd, 2021, 11:03 am

I totally agree with Guy. The little bit of overcrowding at popular spots does not deter me one bit. It is good to see others enjoying the outdoors. And it is super easy to find activities, even near metro areas, where there is hardly anyone.

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SWriverstone
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Re: Public Lands Getting HAMMERED by Crowds

Post by SWriverstone » February 2nd, 2021, 2:59 pm

I appreciate the responses—thanks! And all good food for thought.

I do think some of you are being too charitable though. I agree that public lands are for all. But I also believe that use of public lands carries a higher burden of responsibility than use of, say, a city park (although I recognize in theory they should all be the same). There *is* a wilderness ethic, and I refuse to believe that this is an "each to their own" thing. Appreciation of quiet, solitude, respect for the land and ecosystems, respect for the solitude and quiet of others using public lands—these are all vital to the experience, especially if the number of users continues to increase.

The tragedy of the commons is a very real phenomenon: it's incredibly bad for wild and scenic lands (in my opinion) for these things to become normalized in the public consciousness:
• Hiking in view of people in front of you and behind you
• Hearing loud conversation and laughter and shouting while hiking
• Hearing music being played over speakers by others while hiking
• Frequently seeing non-traditional uses of public lands and trails (like a kid sitting by a trail playing a Nintendo Switch)
• "Bringing the city to the wilderness:" frequently seeing use of gas generators, TV's, erecting big canopies with 6-foot tables, etc. in areas outside developed campgrounds

I could keep going with that list. My point is simply that from my real observations, there are a great many people who just don't understand that the point of wild and scenic lands is that they are wild and scenic. They aren't "pretty places to have a party."

I'm always friendly to everyone I meet on public lands no matter what they're doing. And I try to politely educate them in an open-ended way (without coming across as a jerk) whenever possible.

But I also disagree with a "laissez faire" approach to users of public lands and the normalization (over time) of the kinds of things I listed above. As the number of users increases, land management agencies WILL have to take their management to a new level of education—and not just trust that the majority of users will be "traditional outdoorspeople" who know the difference between what's right and wrong out there.

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Re: Public Lands Getting HAMMERED by Crowds

Post by adamschneider » February 2nd, 2021, 3:24 pm

SWriverstone wrote:
February 2nd, 2021, 2:59 pm
I do think some of you are being too charitable though. I agree that public lands are for all. But I also believe that use of public lands carries a higher burden of responsibility than use of, say, a city park (although I recognize in theory they should all be the same). There *is* a wilderness ethic, and I refuse to believe that this is an "each to their own" thing. Appreciation of quiet, solitude, respect for the land and ecosystems, respect for the solitude and quiet of others using public lands—these are all vital to the experience, especially if the number of users continues to increase.
Are you talking about Wilderness, or Public Lands in general? Because I think most of us have very different expectations for the two. "Public Lands" include industrial logging, mining, OHV areas, motorbike trails, boat launches, target shooting, sledding, and any number of other noisy, unsightly, and/or crowd-producing activities. I don't think you can expect people to treat a National Forest any differently than a City Park.

Was your Nintendo gymnast in a Wilderness? If so, then yeah, that's probably not cool. Otherwise, they're free to do whatever they want as long as they clean up their trash.

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