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The Bighorn National Forest is getting public input on dispersed camping solutions

dispersed camping sign
Coconino National Forest, Ariz.
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Flickr via Public Domain Mark 1.0

Bighorn National Forest officials have been holding public meetings in communities across northern and northeast Wyoming this summer asking for public input on solutions to dispersed camping issues.

The problems have increased as more people have taken to the forest, causing problems in forms such as overcrowded camp sites, increased traffic, as well as increased human waste and environmental degradation issues.

“There’s been several members of the public that have mentioned those same concerns or similar concerns and so those would be more of the resource impacts,” said Andrea Maichak, Recreation, Lands, and Heritage Staff Officer with the Bighorn National Forest. “In addition to that are the social impacts and that’s the crowding.”

Six meetings were planned this summer. Maichak said so far the meetings have been well attended by the public. The Forest Service also wanted to clear up some misconceptions about the solutions to camping issues.

“There's a lot of people that think that we are not currently enforcing any of our current regulations, which is not true,” she explained. “We actually have been actively enforcing our current regulations, one of them being our 14-day stay limit.”

Other misconceptions they’re addressing are related to staff monitoring of camping locations.

“I know that the public thinks that we're not probably [enforcing regulations] due to just not enough staffing that we have out in the field, to where we can't cover every foot of ground, we can't cover the whole forest,” she said. “[However], our field going personnel are actively out there, checking on campers and, and enforcing a 14-day stay limit where they can.”

The problems with dispersed camping aren’t new and have only gotten worse over the years. The COVID-19 pandemic led many people into the forest in 2020 and 2021. This year’s visitation is lower and more in line with normal visitation trends, though Maichak attributed increased fuel prices for keeping some from traveling and increasing this year’s figures. Out-of-state use of the Bighorn National Forest has been on the rise as well.

“Another common theme that we've been hearing are people wanting to have different regulations for residents versus nonresidents,” she explained. “Our message [is] that we've been letting all the local community members know [about] is that this is a National Forest, so we can't have different regulations for out of state visitors versus in state visitors. That's been an interesting theme that I've been picking up on.”

A citizen-led dispersed camping task force is offering proposals for these long-standing problems. So far, some of the proposed solutions from the task force include instituting a sticker program, which would require campers to have a visible sticker for their vehicle to cut down on violations of the 14-day stay limit. This could be implemented next year or in 2024 after a process that would charge a fee for the sticker, Maichak said. Another proposal from the task force would be to identify and designate dispersed camping sites, which could go into effect next summer if approved.

“While this is not a formal process, we're still taking public input seriously,” she said. “And then when we actually have our recommendations that we're going to be moving forward with, there'll be another opportunity for the public to come back and provide comment on those specific actions.”

Maichak said they also want to debunk the perception that any solutions are meant to cut down on camping opportunities for the public and that public comments won’t play a role in the Forest Service’s decision making.

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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