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News / Clark County News

Uptick in Lewis River Recreation Area’s popularity prompts officials to plan for growth

By Lauren Ellenbecker, Columbian staff writer
Published: September 28, 2023, 6:04am
6 Photos
Above, part of the streamflow of Upper Lewis River Falls roars over an 58-foot escarpment, while the rest falls through a series of stair-step falls carved into a large block of basalt into the pool below. It's the tallest of four major waterfalls on this portion of the river.
Above, part of the streamflow of Upper Lewis River Falls roars over an 58-foot escarpment, while the rest falls through a series of stair-step falls carved into a large block of basalt into the pool below. It's the tallest of four major waterfalls on this portion of the river. (Photos by Mark Bowder/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

The Lewis River Recreation Area’s green valleys, sloped forests and waterfalls have seen a lot of love – maybe too much.

Bikers, hikers and campers adore the area, which lies north of Cougar within the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in Skamania County, and it shows. Two-lane roads become an overflow area for parking, crowding the corridor and posing a threat to both safety and erosion. Signs of boots stomping beyond established trails are visible in loosened shrubs and moss. Bunches of used toilet paper litter campgrounds.

Misuse doesn’t only minimize public safety, but it hurts ecosystems, consumes agency resources and can dampen public morale, said Kyung Koh-Willis, U.S. Forest Service recreation program manager.

An uptick of visitation to the Lewis River Recreation Area in recent years has prompted officials to plan for its growth.

“There could be five people outside and, if all left trash or human waste behind, they could have an impact on a small scale,” she said. “Now, think it’s five people versus 500.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, people sought refuge in natural spaces, leading some spots to face a lot of love. This included a crowd of adventurous minds who had a minimal understanding of how to recreate responsibly, Koh-Willis theorized. Mixed with chronic underfunding, a “perfect storm” for outdoor site strain developed.

To prepare accordingly, the Forest Service, the agency overseeing the recreation area, is creating a management plan to evolve alongside inevitable growth. Projects may look into establishing a new campground, expanding parking sites and bringing in more restrooms, Koh-Willis said.

The planning boundary encompasses sites and trails within a half mile of Forest Road 90 and the Lewis River Trail, both of which thread closely to the titular river.

Within this focus area, visitors will find the Curly Creek Falls, Speed, Crab Creek, Wright Meadows Middle Falls, Quartz Creek and Summit Prairie trailheads. Other sites include the Lewis River Bridge, Big Creek Falls, Lewis River Horse Camp and Lower Falls Campground.

As a part of creating the management plan, the Forest Service solicited ideas from the public — which they can still share by emailing sm.fs.gpllra@usda.gov. To date, the Forest Service has received comments to add connector trails, bridges and campgrounds. And, of course, parking improvements.

Same conversation, larger scope

Public misuse of outdoor areas is not unique to the Lewis River Recreation Area, nor the Gifford Pinchot National Forest.

The Washington Department of Natural Resources manages more than 5 million acres of land, encompassing 1,300 miles of trails and more than 160 recreation sites, which are seeing similar impacts.

Visitation boomed 21 percent on state-managed public land from 2019 to 2020, according to an economic report on outdoor recreation in Washington. This trend has likely only grown and, with it, the outdoors have taken a hit, said Sam Hensold, Washington Department of Natural Resources recreation operations manager.

Public abuse — theft, vandalism and dumping — can cause roughly $10 million worth of damage annually to DNR land, he said. The department only has funding to address a third of these costs while also facing a $6 million backlog of other projects. Even then, expenses are likely to be higher because some environmental impacts remain hidden.

“The overall consensus (among regional staff) is that it’s a low estimate,” Hensold said.

This increased use and abuse were the driving factors for creating the Outdoor Access and Responsible Recreation Strategic Plan, a document that parallels what the Forest Service is doing in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. At its foundation, the plan aims to highlight responsible stewardship and access, protect the environment and establish financial stability for management.

Ten landscape-level plans already exist, which are tailored to development on specific landscapes. A statewide plan isn’t as prescriptive, rather it will identify underlying themes that will support legislative and budget requests for the next decade, Hensold said.

DNR will continue to hold regional tribal forums throughout the fall to guide development of the strategic plan. Virtual public town halls are slated to occur this winter, with a draft plan expected to be complete by late summer.

Community Funded Journalism logo

This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.

Columbian staff writer