8.07.2017

Solar Eclipse or Campground Apocalypse?

by Jonathan Barrett
For a state with just over 3.8 million residents, having approximately another million visitors for several days is a staggering increase. As improbable as this is, organizations like Travel Oregon are predicting such numbers. This would be tolerable if these visitors weren’t trying to then squeeze themselves into a strip just 70 miles wide. Then, within that thin strip, only a small fraction of that is easily accessible by roads and has areas conducive to an overnight stay. As a result, many of these feet will be standing on Oregon’s public lands. As you might imagine, there are several serious reasons for concern from the managers of those public lands.

Risk of Wildfire

The day of the eclipse is going to be at the height of fire season in Eastern Oregon. With the tens of thousands of visitors who are coming to camp on public lands, land managers are very concerned about the risk posed by all these additional campfires. Local agencies will be positioned to respond as quickly as possible, but additional traffic on the roads at that time may hinder response time. As a result, campers are being asked to be extremely careful with their campfires. This means never leaving fires unattended, keeping the fires small and contained, as well as making absolutely sure that all fires are extinguished completely. Lisa Clark, the acting Associate District Manager for the Prineville BLM, would urge the public to not have a fire at all. “Don’t plan on having a campfire or a barbecue—bring a camp stove for cooking,” she wrote in her email response to me. Yet, they are realistic about the fact that many will despite prohibitions. As we all know, a single errant spark can lead to catastrophic results when conditions are ripe for wildfires.

Trash

We all have witnessed it: a full trash can with a pile of refuse stacked next to it because there is no more room in the receptacle. Many established areas will have extra capacity for this extra garbage. Jean Nelson-Dean, the Public Affairs Officer for the Deschutes National Forest says, “We hope to provide additional opportunities for people to dump trash on the way in and on the way out of areas.” However in areas where there are not adequate infrastructure and receptacles, there is the real possibility for there to be a substantial problem with litter. Lisa Clark observes that there will be long-term impacts from this waste: “The biggest challenges that we believe we’ll face will be human waste and trash dumping, along with trampling and heavy use in sensitive areas. In addition to planning for increased service in areas where we have toilets and trash cans, we are planning to have staff dedicated to monitoring sites after people leave. The BLM will have to develop a rehabilitation plan—however, we can’t do it until we know where the damage will be and how severe. We’ll manage this much like we develop rehab plans after a wildfire.” Clearly, the best option would be for people to pack out what they pack in.

Human Waste

Then there is the problem of poop. Jean Nelson-Dean says that, “One concern is people not properly disposing of their waste from the RVs and campers because dump locations may be overwhelmed with visitors. If people do dump their waste on the forest it will create both short-term and long-term issues for our public lands.” Like the overflowing trash cans, there is limited capacity for human waste, even if there are extra facilities on site. Many locations will be adding many, many extra port-a-potties to supplement the facilities already there. Unfortunately, many will not use them, even if they are clean and well-maintained. Fecal bacteria can then impact nearby water sources. With limited capacity to manage and maintain facilities, it is possible that restrooms will simply be overwhelmed when they do exist.

Impacts on Vegetation

Clearly there will be legions of people looking for places to camp and observe the eclipse in areas away from other people, either due to necessity or desire. This means that visitors will be traveling on foot and by vehicle into areas that may be sensitive to impact. When asked about differing plans regarding different areas, Lisa Clark said that, “For the BLM, our plans don’t really differ by elevation or vegetation type—instead we are looking early are [sic] areas that could be impacted by motorized vehicles such as wilderness or wilderness study areas. We’ll be looking for areas where we can reinforce our on-site signs or improve gates and fencing so that people get easy direction about where they can or can’t go with vehicles. One of these areas will be Sutton Mountain Wilderness Study Area (WSA) near Mitchell, and also on the mid-line of the eclipse. We want people to find good areas to camp and to leave their vehicles, and proceed on foot into the WSA—and we know that many people coming from outside the area won’t know about restrictions in WSAs. So we plan to do the best we can to get that information out early and at these locations.” Clearly travel on foot is the preferred means of transportation because it has the lowest impact. Education and signage is going to be key to minimizing the impacts. Nonetheless, where there are very few established camping sites on the Prineville BLM lands, none which are reservable, land managers like Clark think that most people will choose to use dispersed camping practices. It is expected that people will probably arrive, discover that the few sites are taken, and then move to an area close by that seems to be able to hold a tent site, whether or not it is actually appropriate. Priest Hole near Mitchell is one such place where there are significant concerns about impact. One of the less noted impacts is also the possibility of the introduction of invasives, like weed species. However, this will only be known long after the crowds have left. Only afterwards will land managers be able to assess the extent of the damage.

Partnerships

Preparing for and resolving these issues has been and will be a collaborative effort. Lisa Clark says the BLM has, “great partnerships with other agencies and organizations in Central Oregon—and we have been meeting together to plan for this event since 2016. Emergency service managers from Deschutes, Crook, and Jefferson Counties have spearheaded meetings with local, state, and federal businesses and agencies; the Governor’s Task Force is coordinating efforts at a statewide level, and the Forest Service and BLM in Central Oregon recently held an “all-hazard” simulation event to practice responses to a variety of emergencies that could happen during the eclipse. This simulation was attended by representatives from five counties, several forests and BLM districts, Oregon Department of Forestry, fire departments, police departments, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, Red Cross, and many more.” Clearly this is an “all hands on deck” scenario. However, what is clear is that success or failure is contingent on whether the myriad visitors decide to either respect the public lands that they are using or behave irresponsibly. Most of these issues are not necessarily new to public lands. Land managers will be moving people from one area to another in the hopes of putting the manpower where it is most needed. Ultimately though, the most important partnership is going to be between the public who will be using the lands and the government agencies charged with taking care of them.

Final Thoughts

Mt. Jefferson, which is under the path of totality, provides a small-scale case study of what the larger picture may look like. It is expected that many climbers will try to summit in order to have the best view. For some, it is “the best spot” to watch the event. The alpine environment is both sensitive to human impact and not hospitable. It has a limited carrying capacity for visitors. When there is a larger than optimal number of visitors, there will be greater problems caused by this friction between what the system is designed to handle and the number of users. Lisa Clark pointed out another such point of friction: “We know we’ll have challenges for example with people wanting to camp at a few campgrounds along the Lower Deschutes River like Trout Creek and Mecca Flats—and at the same time we will have very high numbers of people wanting to launch to be on the river during the eclipse.” Only afterwards will we know the result of exceeding the carrying capacity for these sensitive public lands. We can hope, though, that the public will do their best to minimize the impacts of their presence.

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