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Visitors flocking to the forest

by MADISON HARDY
Staff Writer | June 9, 2021 1:08 AM

The Idaho Panhandle National Forest saw a 300% increase in visitation last year, officials said, and those numbers are likely to climb even higher this year.

In May, the U.S. Forest Service reported that national forests and grasslands received 168 million visits in 2020 — 18 million more than in 2019.

The increase in outdoor enthusiasm is likely due to the pandemic, IPNF Public Affairs Officer Patrick Lair said. 

“It was something that was seen as acceptable and available to people during the pandemic when a lot of other attractions and bigger cities were closed or severely limited,” he said. 

Visitation at the Route of the Hiawatha continues to break records, he noted.

Last year more than 70,000 enjoyed the recreation site, 10,000 more than in 2019, and doubled the amount in 2017.

Trails, dispersed camping, and backcountry activities also saw significant increases in use.

“All last year, in terms of visitors to the National Forest, every weekday seemed like a weekend, and every weekend seemed like a holiday weekend compared to what we’d experienced in the past,” IPNF Recreation Program Manager Josh Jurgensen said. “We’re trying to understand if this is the new normal or if this is just a trend.”

Many of those visitors are what IPNF officials call ‘new users,’ or people who are just getting into the outdoors and gaining recreation etiquette — like when to yield in the trails and minimize landscape impacts. 

Traditionally about 75% of IPNF users come from Kootenai and Spokane counties, but Lair said that is likely changing. 

“People jump in the car from San Francisco or Seattle and head in this direction, and we want to make sure they have a successful, safe vacation,” Lair said.

He explained the leading indicators of rising use are: employee observations, fee revenue, trash clean up, and restroom pumping. 

“We had to clean our restrooms, which is done under contract, three times more often than we had to in previous years,” Lair said, with a light chuckle. “That is a big way we assess the level of use and visitation.” 

Forest facilities, like restrooms, are designed for a certain level of use. Those levels, he noted, are being reached. 

“Our campgrounds were already full in the peak seasons, so all of the overflow in visitation meant that people were camped in every available spot they could pull their vehicles into,” Lair said. “At trailheads that would normally have two to three cars at a time, it was not uncommon to see 20 cars.”

Setting up camp off the beaten path is expected by forest personnel as many of the 48 IPNF campground reservations are filling up fast — faster than usual. 

“A lot of those reservations are booked as soon as spots are available,” Lair said. "People all over the country are booking here.” 

Visitors can make reservations at most campgrounds through recreation.gov, and a few spots are available for walk-ins on a first-come, first-serve basis. However, Lair advised campers not to count on a last-minute solution.

While the IPNF encourages adventurers to experience North Idaho, certain ethics — or, as Lair described, “rules of the game” — are necessary. Some of those rules pertain to forest maintenance, like the principles of “Leave No Trace” and “Pack It In, Pack It Out.” Others focus on visitor well-being and preparedness. 

“During the summer recreation season, there are so many people that come to visit,” Lair said. “We are trying to ensure people don’t get stranded and prepared for higher levels of use than what they saw 10 years ago.”

As part of Recreate Responsibly Idaho, a statewide group that aims to spread awareness to users about current forest conditions and responsible recreation, IPNF advises:

• Know where you go — plan responsibly through resources available at recreate.idaho.gov.

• Practice proper trail, dock, and boat ramp etiquette.

• Prevent human-caused wildfires.

• Show respect for wildlife and other land operations.

• Dispose of human waste properly.

• Follow state and federal COVID-19 guidelines.

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With more visitors traveling to the Idaho Panhandle National Forest in 2020 than ever before, officials are reminding people to prepare ahead of their outdoor adventure. Photo courtesy IPNF.

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Ahead of what Idaho Panhandle National Forest officials anticipants to be a busy summer season they are reminding visitors to practice proper outdoor recreation etiquette. Photo courts IPNF.