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Forest users voice dispersed camping concerns

BUFFALO — For Karen McGowan, the dispersed camping public forum hosted on August 25 by Bighorn National Forest staff addressed concerns that, for her, are nearly 20 years in the making.

The Buffalo resident bought land on the mountain two decades ago, she said, amid her struggle to find dispersed camping spots on the mountain.

“And now you’re seeing these people that are camped out for weeks or months at a time, and it’s like, I’m paying taxes, I’m paying an access fee for the road that we’re on, it’s frustrating,” McGowan said. “But I’m also a camper and I don’t want to see dispersed camping go away. I think it’s very important, especially in Wyoming.”

Her concerns about an issue that has long plagued the U.S. Forest Service and upset landowners and campers alike mirror those of the roughly 50 community members who were present at the public meeting to discuss possible management solutions. The meeting hosted in Buffalo was one of six that Forest Service officials have scheduled in communities bordering the forest.

Broadly speaking, the Forest Service is trying to address two dispersed camping problems, explained recreation staff officer Andrea Maichak: resource damage — wetlands, riparian areas, stream banks, erosion, road concerns — and social struggles — campers left unattended, not enough camping spaces, people overstaying the 14-day limit.

In response to these concerns, the Bighorn Mountain Coalition, a group of stakeholders representing the communities adjacent to the forest, established a dispersed camping task force, which presented the Forest Service with recommendations in 2019.

Due to the pandemic, the agency has so far acted on just one recommendation from that task force: pushing back the 14-day stay limit through Sept. 30 instead of Sept. 10. Now, campers must move from their dispersed campsites every 14 days during the forest’s busy season, from June 1 through Sept. 30.

With these public meetings, the Forest Service is trying a new tactic to involve communities in decision-making on dispersed camping management.

On the walls of the Johnson County Fire District office were posters with the Bighorn National Forest’s four proposed management ideas. 

Attendees of the public meeting were invited to jot down their thoughts on each proposal’s respective poster or to write their longer comments on paper. Forest staff talked one-on-one with community members who came from as far as Casper to voice their concerns.

Staffers acknowledged to those gathered that this particular public forum differs from what they might have seen in the past. 

Typically, under National Environmental Policy Act requirements, the Forest Service goes to the public with its proposed plan and allows comments then. With dispersed camping, however, officers are looking for new ideas from the public.

“So I understand that this is a little awkward because we’re coming to you without a recommendation,” Maichak said. “We’re coming to you without a proposal because we really just want to hear from you.”

Ideas that the service had to contribute came from the Bighorn Mountain Coalition’s dispersed camping task force: Assign designated dispersed camping sites, implement a sticker program, and update the special order to implement the 14-day stay limit year-round, which would be more consistent with other national forests.

Johnson County Commission Chairman Bill Novotny attended the meeting to get a better idea of how the sticker program would function, he said. 

If that recommendation were to become policy, campers would purchase stickers for their hard-sided campers to be permitted to camp. How that would work with tents and for campers with multiple camping mechanisms remains unclear.

But 95% of the revenue from purchasing a sticker would stay on the Forest Service to fund dispersed camping and other recreation management, while the other 5% would go toward the regional office that oversees Forest System lands in the mountain west.

“That’s a good deal,” said Andrew Johnson, Forest Service supervisor. “It doesn’t go off to D.C.; no one else gets to decide how we invest those dollars.”

He compared the potential sticker permitting model to the state’s OHV program, which funds most of the agency’s forest protection officers. ATVs or snowmobiles that are ridden in the forest must have an annual sticker.

“Those funds get reinvested by the state of Wyoming into providing OHV opportunities, trail maintenance, things like that, and enforcement,” Johnson said.

Another advantage of a permitting system, Johnson said, would be the ability to better keep track of and contact campers in case of emergency. Last summer’s Crater Ridge fire that burned in the northern portion of the forest threatened roughly 60 campers. Most were unoccupied, he said.

“We have no idea who owns those,” Johnson said. “So we had people coming up to the forest, concerned, ‘Where’s the fire? Is my camper at risk?’ And, I don’t know.”

To that, Casper resident Rick Shumway wondered aloud, “If they’re at home, what’s their camper doing up on the mountain?”

He and his wife, Wendy, are longtime Bighorn National Forest visitors, he told the Bulletin in an interview. At least, they try to be.

“I have trouble (finding a spot) every time I come up, anymore,” Shumway said. “They park, they set up their summer home, they leave, and they don’t take it with them.”

What Johnson identifies as the root of most of these problems is staffing. The agency has just one forest protection officer — plus some help from the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office and other local law enforcement agencies that border the forest.

That person is tasked with enforcing the forest’s dispersed camping policies, along with other issues. The Forest Service is increasing its citation fee to $100, plus $20 for every day a camper has overstayed the 14-day limit.

And that forest protection officer, Jeff Smith, understands the frustration of campers who gathered in Buffalo last week.

Closed-down campgrounds and a growing population in northeast Wyoming mean more and more people are competing for a finite number of dispersed camping spots.

He does have some help. 

Layne Peterson is a volunteer who works two days a week, talking with and educating campers in the forest. One might think these conversations would be intense or vitriolic with the controversy surrounding this issue, but Peterson and Smith said conversations tend to be respectful.

“You explain the regulations; you just try to get them to comply,” Smith said. “You know, that’s everybody’s favorite spot, not just theirs. We have very few regulations up there. I make the joke that if everyone abides by what they’re supposed to be doing, it’s gonna be rainbows and Skittles up there. It’s just that simple.” 

Once Forest Service officials are finished with all of the community meetings, staff will compile the comments into various themes and determine how to move forward. From there, each proposal will go through a separate NEPA process, Maichak said.