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The Bighorn National Forest is proposing solutions to camping and ecological issues

A dispersed camping site in the Bighorn National Forest.
Bighorn National Forest
A dispersed camping site in the Bighorn National Forest.

The Bighorn National Forest is proposing solutions to camping-related problems that they’ve experienced for years. This largely concerns issues concerning dispersed camping and the ecological problems that stem from camping and damage to ecological resources.

“Issues that both forest service managers and the public have been identifying over several years centered around dispersed camping are both social [and ecological] in nature,” said Andrea Maichak, Recreation Lands and Heritage Staff Officer for the Bighorn National Forest. “Lack of available campsites and large numbers of campers and sites left unattended for long periods of time, lack of compliance with the 14-day stay limit [are continually problematic]. And then there's also the resource aspect of it, which is damage on roads, water quality and damage to meadows and in riparian areas.”

Campgrounds and dispersed camping sites are available throughout the forest. Amenities such as camping sites, grills, boat launches, and picnic areas are common at campgrounds while dispersed camping requires the camper to set up their own campsite, either with RVs or tents, and set up within 300 feet of any Forest Service road, Maichak explained. There is no infrastructure available for dispersed camping, so those who decided to camp must bring in all of their own equipment.

Dispersed camping is available throughout the forest, though there are areas that have higher concentrations of it than others. There has also been an increase in camping activities in previous years, which has led to overcrowding and a lack of availability in some of the more popular areas, Maichak said.

The proposed solutions seek to enhance the quality of the visiting experience.

“Our goal is to not restrict camping necessarily, it’s to improve the dispersed camping or the quality of the experience for the user and to improve resource conditions,” she continued.

In 2016, the Big Horn Mountain Coalition, in coordination with the Bighorn National Forest, began a public conversation of dispersed camping in the forest. The Coalition found that the public agreed that problems with dispersed camping are a widespread problem. This led to the creation of the Dispersed Camping Task Force, a citizen-led initiative, which solicited each of the four counties to select interested residents to participate in addition to the Bighorn National Forest. The objective was to review the concerns expressed through Coalition questionnaires, hear the concerns of the Forest Service, and work towards implementing possible solutions.

Other proposed solutions are to require a dispersed camping sticker for camping outside of campgrounds, similar to what the state requires for its RV and snowmobiling programs, to changing how far campers must travel after a 14-day stay, she said. Currently, the distance required to move is measured in air miles. The change would shift this to road miles so that campers wouldn’t be as confused. Ecological concerns, such as waste management, impacts to roadways and wildlife habitats, and damage to meadows are also points of emphasis.

The Forest Service will be holding a public comment period this summer to update current dispersed camping regulations based on the findings from the Dispersed Camping Task Force, according to a Forest Service release. These revised regulations are set to go into effect in January 2023. Public consideration will be taken into consideration for the proposed changes and any solutions that may be implemented.

Hugh Cook is Wyoming Public Radio's Northeast Reporter, based in Gillette. A fourth-generation Northeast Wyoming native, Hugh joined Wyoming Public Media in October 2021 after studying and working abroad and in Washington, D.C. for the late Senator Mike Enzi.
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