Camping free-for-all? Strategies emerge to manage forest crowds
August 4, 2022
Randy Pickett was hiking along a creek bottom during a recent camping trip in the Bighorn National Forest when he noticed tire tracks in the vegetation.
“I’m like, ‘those are tire tracks from somebody’s ATV, and they drove at least a mile up-creek, off trail — probably just to go fishing,’” he said.
Pickett grew up in Wyoming, and has been camping in the Bighorns for decades. He does it for the solitude, fishing, exploring and technology-free family time. But through the years, Pickett said, he’s seen more resource damage as crowds mushroom.
“You’re seeing more and more people backpacking and getting out doing their stuff, which is fine,” he said. “But you’re also realizing there’s more trash on the trails, heavier usage, more areas getting worn down where people are camping.”
The forest, he said, “has taken a big hit.”
Without entrance gates or crowd counters, it’s difficult to pin down exact visitation numbers on Wyoming’s 9 million acres of national forest, but managers agree the volume of visitors is growing quickly, particularly in dispersed camping zones — areas outside of officially designated or developed campgrounds.
“Every national forest is dealing with a huge increase in dispersed camping,” said Linda Merigliano, wilderness and recreation program manager for the Bridger-Teton National Forest. “It’s an issue that I think is going on in every forest in the West.”
District rangers and other groups are responding with measures meant to meet demand while protecting the resource — such as educational campaigns, new infrastructure and proposals to update camping rules.
But unlike the heavily regulated jurisdictions of national or state parks, national forests have a more free-for-all ethos, which can make it difficult to implement and enforce rules. Threadbare budgets and limited staff overseeing vast landscapes only exacerbate the situation.
And while some forest managers are making gains, staying ahead of the trends is difficult — at least without the help of outside partners.
“It’s a capacity issue,” said Scott Kosiba, executive director of Friends of the Bridger-Teton, one such partner. “The Forest Service has been continually drained of funding and especially in their recreation programs. And so to me, this wave of visitation in the last couple of years … it has the entire system on its heels.”
Kosiba recognizes that swamped forest employees don’t have bandwidth to address big-picture visitation issues without some assistance.
“It is really really hard if not impossible to get your head out of the weeds and out of the day-to-day emergencies to do some of these things,” he said.
The popularity of America’s national forests has been growing for decades.
“We’ve certainly seen a major surge in visitation, especially over the last five years,” said Emily Olsen, Rocky Mountain Region director for the National Forest Foundation.
Factors like Wyoming’s prime 2017 solar eclipse viewing position only fueled that growth in the state.
“And then obviously the pandemic hit, and it just exploded,” Merigliano of the BTNF said of her region.
Millions of people took up camping for the first time in the U.S. in recent years, according to industry reports, with many newcomers flooding public lands without understanding leave-no-trace principles.
Kristie Thompson, public affairs director for the Shoshone National Forest, said the spike that started in 2020 seems to be leveling off. Still, she wrote in an email, the overall upward trends in developed and dispersed recreation have created “a growing need for amenities to accommodate larger RVs and camper trailers,” among other things.
While the growing visitation has fueled issues like improper human waste disposal, user-created roads, wildlife conflicts and vegetation damage, the federal agency that oversees the lands has faced limited budgets and staff. Since the 1990s, the Forest Service has experienced a major reduction in staffing across nearly all position types.
In the 3.4-million acre Bridger-Teton National Forest, Kosiba said, it’s easy to recognize the quandary. “The forest is chronically underfunded, understaffed, and even with a fully funded and fully staffed forest, it is a constant challenge to mitigate these visitor impacts,” he said
It’s not limited to northwestern Wyoming. “I think across the entire system, forests and grasslands have seen an explosion of use, but not a commensurate explosion in funding to deal with this,” Kosiba said.
It’s important to recognize that tourism and outdoor recreation add value to local economies, Olsen said. “But then we also have to be mindful of the natural resources and how we can protect those and ensure their sustainability for the long term.”
There is, Olsen said, “a strong desire just to be proactive, and to come up with solutions to feel like we’re getting ahead of some of the visitation and we’re not always reacting to that growth and those increases.”
Some in Wyoming have begun to forge those solutions.
In the age of Instagram-famous landscapes, Shadow Mountain, a dispersed camping area situated amid aspen trees on the Bridger-Teton National Forest, is among the country’s most well-known spots to pitch a tent. Free camping, proximity to Grand Teton National Park and killer views of the Teton Range have made it one of the most-saved campsites on apps like The Dyrt (which has a feature that lets users “save” destinations they are interested in).
Shadow Mountain isn’t the only Jackson-area dispersed camping area that’s been hammered by use in recent years, but has been the testing ground for creative measures to manage crowds and protect resources.
The forest, Merigliano said, organized public meetings in 2018 to try to address the issues — which were further exacerbated by a regional housing crunch that pushed people to live on the national forest. A designated site system for Shadow Mountain and other popular areas emerged as a solution. Camping there is still free and dispersed, but a designation system allows managers to control crowd size through parking allotment and better prevent the footprint from slowly migrating outward.
The forest also began recruiting volunteers to act as camp hosts at popular sites, and erected signs reminding users of proper food storage and fire extinguishing.
Friends of the Bridger-Teton, established in 2019, also came from efforts to protect overloved lands. The nonprofit acts as a partner to the forest, Kosiba said, and it has the advantage of being a little more nimble when it comes to things like fundraising. But, he said, “we don’t jump until the Forest Service gives the OK.”
Under the partnership, FBT has expanded the volunteer ambassador program, putting ambassadors everywhere from crowded dispersed areas to backcountry trailheads, Kosiba said. It provides social media outreach and organizes volunteer projects. On the day Kosiba spoke to WyoFile, the group was installing steel fire rings at Shadow Mountain, replacing haphazard stone rings with permanent and more fire-proof metal options.
FBT also partnered with a University of Wyoming graduate student to undertake a resource and infrastructure inventory of dispersed sites in the forest’s northern zone, to help identify needs. And the group raised money to install vault toilets at heavily used locations, including Shadow Mountain. “That went such a long way to address human waste issues that we’re seeing in those areas,” Kosiba said.
The ambassador program in particular has been meaningful, Merigliano said, as a human presence to remind users of responsible recreation is invaluable. “It’s made a world of difference.”
The program now counts about 40 volunteers who post up on the forest with the purpose of educating users, Kosiba said.
At Shadow Mountain, retirees Christopher and Liz Pipes are in their third season of being ambassadors. They live in a host site, enjoy great views and spend their days welcoming people, explaining best practices and answering questions, they said.
Shadow Mountain’s lower sites fill up every day by about noon, Liz Pipes said, so they do turn people away. They also try to prevent people from glomming onto other campers’ sites, and explain new rules to old-timers who have frequented Shadow Mountain for years. Mostly, they said, they talk about bears.
“We do have a pretty active grizzly and black bear population in our area,” Christopher Pipes said. “And we’re constantly having to remind people about the importance of that.”
It’s part of an education process, he said. “We ask you to do one thing and that is to figure out how can we come up here and enjoy this camping experience and do the least amount of damage.”
Over three seasons, they’ve watched vegetation grow back with new parking limits. They’ve also seen crowds become more manageable than during the height of the pandemic. They’ve had issues with bad actors, but the vast majority of their interactions are positive.
“Just our presence,” Liz Pipes said, “that has helped a lot.”
If Andrea Maichak, Bighorn National Forest Recreation, Lands & Heritage staff officer, had a marker and a map and was asked to identify forest areas that have experienced crowding or users problems, “the map would end up being pretty full with a bunch of circles.”
In fact, she worked as a seasonal employee on the BNF in 2005, and remembers that even “at that time, dispersed camping was starting to become an issue.”
It hasn’t abated. And this summer, the forest is launching a public process to consider changes in camping regulations related to things like new stay limits and a sticker program.
A coalition initiated a public discussion in 2016 to address long-simmering concerns with dispersed camping regulations and management, like lack of sites, people overstaying limits, vegetation damage and improper disposal of human waste. After studying the issues, a task force delivered recommendations to the forest in March 2020.
The pandemic stalled the process, Maichak said, “so we had to delay really taking a hard look at the recommendations until this spring.”
Meantime, COVID-19 accelerated visitation. In 2020 and 2021, “our developed campgrounds were pretty much at 100% capacity throughout the season,” she said. “And the same happened with our dispersed camping, that use continued to really climb and skyrocket.”
Now that the agency has rebuilt some of its pandemic staffing holes, it’s gearing up to take the recommendations out to the public.
The recommendations include: implementing a permanent, year-around stay limit of 14 days; revising the stay-limit moving requirement to five road miles; creating a half-mile no-camping buffer along busy Highway 16; designating dispersed sites at several well-used spots; and creating a sticker program that would authorize dispersed camping at a nominal fee, with the bulk of revenues going back into forest projects, among other things.
“We’re in the very early stages of these considerations,” Maichak said. “So we’re spending the summer going out to the communities and inviting them to provide their thoughts on what we should do.” The agency will also solicit input online, she said.
With major highways providing good access, the BNF is uniquely alluring, Maichak said. The Bighorns are “the first large range that people come across when they come from the East.” Also, there aren’t grizzly bears.
“So it’s very popular for recreationists to come and camp on the Bighorn,” she said.
“I know that almost every forest is having concerns surrounding dispersed camping,” Maichak said. “It’s not unique to just us. But I know that other forests are aware that we are wanting to be proactive and improving the dispersed camping opportunity on the forest. So they’re looking towards us to see what we’re going to do and how successful our actions are.
“We’re kind of guinea pigs so to speak,” she said.
With campgrounds and trailheads brimming around the West, it’s caused some to wonder if the issue doesn’t come down to inventory: Why not just build more facilities to handle the crowds?
Some forests are considering those options, particularly with a new flood of recreation- or infrastructure-related federal funds.
“Many of our campgrounds in the area are at like 90% occupancy, and so we are proposing to expand some of our campgrounds,” Merigliano said.
“We probably are going to add a campground in the future,” she said. “I think we’re gonna have to.”
The solution isn’t as simple as deciding to expand, however.
“Campgrounds are expensive,” she said, estimating about $15,000-$20,000 to build a site. “We just don’t have that kind of money sitting around. So that’s one of the things with the infrastructure bill that we’re really pleased to see is it does provide an opportunity” to fund new projects, she said.
Others are using federal money to tackle a backlog.
“The Shoshone National Forest has taken advantage of these opportunities and has been able to address deferred maintenance on trails throughout the Forest, replace old outhouses with new vault toilets, and address degrading road conditions,” Thompson of the Shoshone National Forest wrote.
Recent funding sources “like the Great American Outdoors Act are providing some oomph, which is really positive,” Olson of the National Forest Foundation said.
Because, she continued, “I think the other piece is just that so much of the infrastructure on national forests was designed and built many years ago or decades ago, and wasn’t designed to withstand the use that we’re seeing today.”
Pickett, who saw the tire tracks in the creek bed, has watched ebbs and flows of enforcement in the Bighorn National Forest as the agency tries to address management. He is concerned about the resources, he said, as he sees more trash, firepits, tree damage and other evidence of bad behavior.
Infrastructure like outhouses or dumpsters could help, he said. “It may cost the forest service money, but at the same time, it may help reduce the pollution and trash left behind by campers.”
WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.