Cougar Hot Springs


Nov 98


The U. S. Forest Service is considering banning nudity at Cougar Hot Springs. A decision on whether to start a no nudity policy will most likely be made before the end of the year.


This newsletter is published by Friends of Cougar. We represent the thousands of people who enjoy Cougar Hot Springs. The Forest Service naturally has a difficult time understanding what’s important to Cougar visitors, and to articulate these interests is our mission. An estimated 10,000 people visit Cougar annually. Although nudity is traditional and taken for granted here, it is considered sacred. Nudity is one of the most important attributes of Cougar after the waters themselves, and the old-growth forest in which it is nestled. About 8,000 go nude here each year, including 1,000 having their first experience of being nude in public.


On September 30th, there was a 7-hour advisory group meeting to review the recent changes at Cougar and to discuss the issue of nudity. There were 18 people in attendance, including Greg Thorne of Friends of Cougar and Lynn Burditt, the Blue River District Ranger. It is Lynn, not the advisory group, who actually makes the policy decisions for Cougar, such as the fee program and possible changes on nudity. The people in attendance were invited or invited by those who were invited. There were only four regular hot springs users and 14 other people. Among the others were a few people from the local community, social agencies such as a representative from Looking Glass, and a half dozen members of the Forest Service who are involved in the Cougar area. The meeting was facilitated by a man who runs these meetings for a living. He specializes in building consensus in communities where there is conflict. Everyone had a chance to be heard. A similar meeting occurred in May before the final decision on the fee program.

Greg presented the results of the first 50 Friends of Cougar surveys received. 100% of respondents were in favor of allowing nudity.

Lynn said she found the surveys informative and consistent with what visitors had been telling the Forest Service through their questionnaire forms and other means. Clearly the surveys are not enough to sway the Forest Service. They are important, but we also need letters, phone calls, and participation.

Half of the meeting was devoted to the issue of nudity at the Springs. The Forest Service has several reasons they might ban nudity:

  1. Public nudity is technically illegal in Lane County.
  2. Some visitors are offended or fearful of nude people.
  3. Inappropriate sexual behavior.

Under Lane County code, exposure of female breasts is legal, but exposure of the genitals to public view is illegal. They do provide for area exemptions. The Forest Service may apply for this exemption and if they do, it will most certainly be granted. Tell the Forest Service if you want them to seek the exemption.

Law enforcement told the Forest Service that child molestation should be a concern because of the nudity. But they concede the number of reports of child molestation over the years at Cougar is zero. They do, however, have reports of masturbation and consensual sexual activity among adults and "nearly" adults. These are two problems we don’t need to mandate wearing clothes to solve. Parents are in the best position to supervise their young children. And when we see people behaving in a way that may be upsetting others, we can ask them to cool it. Overt sexual activity is rare at Cougar, but even isolated incidents are alarming to the Forest Service, and the Friends’ solution is to have a zero tolerance policy. As visitors, we cherish Cougar as a place of healing. But the Forest Service battles the image created by few -- and spread by many -- of Cougar being a mecca for sex and drugs. Supporting Cougar with that image, deserved or not, is tough on public officials.

To assuage the occasional visitor afraid of nude people, there are solutions. An explanation posted on the signboard above the Springs where they usually stop and ponder (guess at) what’s below. Often they’re simply afraid of intruding on the nude people. There could be an explanation saying that you’re welcome to use the springs clothed, that the nude people expect this and are accustomed to it. Using remote, natural hot springs nude is fairly standard. There is a nearby clothing-mandatory hot springs for those who prefer everyone be clothed (e.g. Belknap).

Another possibility the Forest Service is considering is having a schedule where there would be "no nudity days." This would solve the problem of those visitors who are afraid to use the Springs with nude people there. The downside, however, is that it will create an inconvenience for nude users who would have to know the schedule. Many users return after five or ten year absences to Cougar. Only 33% of Cougar users come from Eugene and the local areas, another third from elsewhere in Oregon. One third travel greater distances. It would be pretty sad if 20 visitors each day, having travelled from Eugene, Portland or Seattle might have to turn around and go home for the sake of two people who were bothered by nudity.

Reasons Friends of Cougar have for allowing nudity:

  1. It’s a far superior soaking and healing experience.
  2. It’s immensely popular. Surveys show that virtually 100% of Cougar visitors want nudity allowed.
  3. It’s a nuisance to pack a suit, change into it, and then wear it out wet or peel it off and carry the soggy thing.
  4. People are nature, too. It feels more wholesome and relaxing when people are in harmony with nature. Just as litter and signs are distraction from nature, so too are brightly-colored useless bathing suits as people move from pool to pool. Nudity enhances the beauty of this natural setting.
  5. Being vulnerable when nude, people are more sensitive to the fragile environment in and around the pools and toward each other.
  6. Cougar is a world-class hot springs. If nudity were banned, the world-class soakers (people like you) would tend to go elsewhere. Those who don’t mind wearing clothes -- tourists and novice users -- would soon dominate. This could lead to rapid degradation, because it is the wiser people who provide guidance. Last week for example, a family on their way out was seen carrying uprooted ferns!

Please write and tell us what other reasons you may have, so we can add them to our list, and present them ahead of a decision.*

An open letter to the District Ranger

If you are willing to attend and participate in the advisory group December meeting (the date has not yet been set, but will probably be Dec 7 or  8th), please contact Greg. He will choose people to invite as soon as the date is set, about two weeks ahead. This meeting will be the most important meeting on the nudity issue and will include about 35 people, including several from the Forest Service, who will be central to the decision. It will be a weekday. There is space for about twenty Friends of Cougar. Chances are it will be a very rewarding experience. It will most likely last all day (e.g. 9am to 4pm) and be in Blue River. Anyone who participates in the meeting from Friends of Cougar is representing thousands of users who will appreciate a successful outcome for years to come.

(* Friends of Cougar, POB 350, Blue River, OR 97413 –or-