Can We “Over-Love” a Place?

A hot topic of discussion in tourism circles is whether the number of visitors to an area can reach a point where that place is being “over-loved.” In the Eugene, Cascades & Coast region, we pride ourselves on having easily accessible outdoor adventures and because of this, there are areas that visitors are increasingly drawn to experience. While not as significant as the pressure experienced at iconic Oregon places like Multnomah Falls and Smith Rock, local destinations are seeing the need for increased parking, restrooms, garbage service and trail maintenance. Trails are showing signs of wear as more boots, horse hoofs, bike tires and OHV tires traverse more and more miles in our forests. All of this is occurring as the number of visitors to Oregon increases and more Americans participate in a wider array of outdoor recreation activities than ever So, how do our outdoor recreation partners and stewards of our outdoor resources handle the issue of possible overuse?

Rick Dancer, whose ExplOregon series takes him to rural areas around Oregon, and I had an opportunity to discuss outdoor recreation as part of this month’s TALC - Tourism Around Lane County. Our guest was Matt Peterson, Assistant Recreation Staff Officer for the Willamette National Forest. Like any discussion that starts out focused on one subject, we soon took a few turns and, like a hike in the forest, we had suddenly explored a lot of different territories.

Congress was busy the week we met, and one thing they accomplished was passing a funding bill. According to Outdoor Recreation Roundtable, the funding package is very good and includes a boost in capital funding for the U.S. Forest Service.  While Matt was unfamiliar with the details of what will be included in the overall budget, he was quick to note that the Forest Service will continue relying on strong partnerships and usage fees. A great partnership example was seen this past spring when winter snow and wind-storms downed thousands of trees. This wreaked havoc on the trail system, but the Forest Service and many groups came together to get the majority of trails cleared before the visitor season hit high gear.  

On the topic of fees, the Forest Service is evaluating the establishment of new Special Recreation Permit Fees, increasing some other fees and limiting use in several wilderness areas. I asked Matt how the public has been reacting to the proposed changes and he noted that it has been, “akin to going to the dentist. No one looks forward to going to the dentist, but we know it’s good for us in the long run.” The good news with respect to fee revenue is that this revenue stays with the forest that levies the fees. Fees generated in the Willamette National Forest will stay right here and be used for trail work, parking area maintenance, restroom enhancement and other maintenance projects. Like much of our public infrastructure, deferred maintenance weighs heavily on agencies like the Forest Service. Infrastructure built in the 1960s through the 1980s needs updating and replacement. The challenge is finding the funds to keep up with the needs. As part of this new federal funding bill, some relief may come; however, the needs outweigh means to accomplish all that’s needed.  

Hiking Iron Mountain by Naturally Inspired
Hiking Iron Mountain by Naturally Inspired

I wondered where more funding comes from during periods where fire suppression seems to be taking more and more funds? Matt explained that funds for fighting fires is a separate part of the budget and only affects other Forest Service work programs when funds are exhausted during bad fire seasons. As Matt noted, “borrowing from other accounts is a standard process, but the intent is that these funds are returned and used for their intended purpose.” 

Two top priorities for the Forest Service are annual timber harvests and a focus on forest fuel reduction. With the goal of harvesting 100 million board feet annually, it was interesting to learn that these harvests are done by area contractors and are milled locally. I was glad to learn that timber harvested from federal lands cannot be sent as raw logs overseas, a practice that is known to result in mill closures.

Returning to outdoor recreation for a minute, I asked Matt about whether the Forest Service has been able to create consistency in permitting processes across various forests.  We hear from our partners that it can be frustrating and challenging to develop outdoor events when one forest supervisor makes the permitting process simple while others create different and cumbersome procedures. Matt noted that the decentralized structure of the forests allows each one to be best managed and that this inherently creates some inconsistency.  He went on to say that one thing the staff is attempting to have consistency around is the “thought process.” I suspect our partners appreciate a consistent “thought process,” but would likely find greater value in permitting consistency. What’s reassuring in these process refinements is that the staff we interact with is committed to finding solutions. Speaking of staff led me to my last line of inquiry with Matt.

I was curious why it seemed as if some Forest Service staff positions were turning over quite often. I learned that some personnel choose to move to new assignments around the country, and who would blame them since there are so many beautiful places to live, while others work up through the ranks and remain in our communities for many years. Having experienced land management staff in our area makes our work as a destination marketing organization more efficient and effective. We are able to understand what’s available for both locals and visitors to enjoy and, when necessary, direct people away from areas that are oversubscribed or under renovation. Recent examples of this coordination have occurred around Tamolitch Falls (Blue Pool) along the McKenzie River Trail and Terwilliger Hot Springs, which was damaged in a fire.

Our land managers have a challenging job and we are fortunate to have great people to work with throughout Lane County. Matt left us all with several excellent thoughts. First, there are endless opportunities for recreating on public lands, whether on your own or through professional guides. Second, there are tremendous opportunities for folks who want to lend a hand and get involved with trail work, wilderness education and more. Third, always plan ahead and be prepared. Know where you’re going, what you need to be safe, and let someone know when you’ll be back.

Travel Lane County Adventure Center (3312 Gateway Street) staff are available seven days per week to help you plan your next forest adventure. If you need a permit, they’ll sell you one.  If you need a trail recommendation, they’ll have one.

For more information on outdoor recreation in the Willamette National Forest, contact Matt Peterson at