No easy fix for dispersed camping issues

Nathan Oster

While everyone seemed to agree that increased demand has led to problems, no clear consensus on how best to manage dispersed camping in the Bighorn National Forest emerged from a public forum Tuesday, Sept. 5 at Greybull Town Hall. 

It was the sixth and final forum that forest supervisors conducted this fall to solicit input on the recommendations of a citizen-led Dispersed Camping Task Force.  Approximately 25 people attended the two-hour session.

The group’s recommendations are as follows:

1)     Update the special order, including changing to a year-round 14-day stay limit, changing the moving requirement, considering a one-half mile dispersed camping buffer on U.S. Highway 16 (similar to what already exists along U.S. Highways 14 and 14A) and a permit system to allow stays of more than 14 days in special circumstances.

2)     Implement a sticker program to authorize dispersed camping

3)     Identify and assign designated dispersed camping sites

4)     Expand Jaws Trailhead to allow overnight camping, including livestock

Because the meeting was held the day after Labor Day, several attendees had fresh experiences to share about their experiences on the mountain.  As usual, the mountain was a popular destination over the long weekend.

Joe Cheatham asked if the stay limits for wheeled campers would apply to tent campers as well.  He’d gone up the previous Friday evening, meeting some friends who had already established a campsite and invited him.

“We didn’t have to go looking for a spot, so we were lucky,” he said. “But right next to us, there was a tent set out in the middle of a nice spot. It happens a lot. People will go up, find a spot they like, set up a tent and go get their trailer, which is all fine.  But that tent sat their all weekend – nobody ever came, so it was basically holding a spot for nobody.”

Dallas Edeler said he’s been spending weekends on the mountain since he was a kid.  “We go every weekend, if we can,” he said. “It’s definitely worse now.”

He pointed to a lack of enforcement as a problem. “I know of a spot where a camper, the same exact one, has sat for more than eight weeks without moving. It’s (about 50 yards) off the main gravel pit road and I know rangers drive by there all the time.

“It doesn’t do any good to make rules when you aren’t going to enforce the ones you already have.”

Kathy Smith is another lifelong camping enthusiast. She, too, has noticed changes over the years. “We’re seeing a lot more campers, that’s for sure,” she said. “Some of it’s due to COVID and people cancelling long vacations and camping instead, but I think it’s also because they’ve closed a lot of the roads that people like to use.”

Smith said she came to the meeting because she was concerned about losing dispersed camping.



While most of the two hours were spent in small group discussions, forest officials spoke of the challenges during a short presentation.  Andrew Johnson, the district supervisor officed in Sheridan, and Mark Foster, who recently took over as the Medicine Wheel/Paintrock district ranger, led the discussion.

Johnson said forest officials have received an increasing number of complaints in last four or five years about unoccupied campers, people not being able to find a place to camp, human waste and garbage issues, all of which led to the formation of the task force.

While the recommendations of the task force were the focus of the meeting, Johnson acknowledged several times that nothing was set in stone. “We don’t have all the answers, we aren’t necessarily experts in any of this, which is why we need to work with all of you, the people who love the forest, to come up with solutions that have the best chance of improving the forest,” he said.

“We’re committed to making things better and to learning along the way.  This is something that people really love and we want to preserve that, but we also want to solve some of the problems we hear about a lot.”

Andrea Maichak, forest recreation staff officer from the Sheridan office, provided more details on each of the four recommendations. The special order tops the priority list at this time because it must be updated by the end of the year.

Right now, the 14-day stay limit is only in effect from June 1 through Sept. 30.  The task force is recommending the stay limit remain in place year-round.

It’s also recommending a change in the moving requirement. Right now, the order directs campers to relocate every 14 days, moving a minimum of 5 air miles.  To make it more clear to campers, the task force is recommending a change to five road miles.

The other recommendations falling under the special order include the establishment of a buffer zone along U.S. Highway 16 similar to the ones that are already in place along U.S. Highways 14 and 14A; a permit system for stays of more than 14 days in certain circumstances and allowing overnight camping at the Jaws Head Trail Head, which is above Lovell and just beyond the Porcupine Ranger Station.

The sticker program envisioned by the task force would be modeled on those already in place for snowmobilers and ORV users.  If the forest were to start selling the stickers, which would be good for a  year, it would retain 5% of the money for administration. The rest, however, could be spent on hiring more seasonal employees, road maintenance and improving campsites.

Johnson said forest officials are often asked why they don’t enforce the existing stay limit. “The challenge has been, we just don’t have the people to do it,” he said. “We have a limited number of employees and a limited number of forest service law enforcement officers — two of them, forest-wide.

“We can hire seasonal forest protection officers, but we aren’t funded to have very many of those, either. The ones we have are largely paid for with grants from the state ORV and snowmobile sticker programs.”

Johnson said employees who monitor the campsites are limited. “We can’t run plates — we don’t have that ability,” he said. “We may ask, through a forest law enforcement officer, to make the request to a county sheriff to run a plate if there’s probable cause, but that’s about it.”

Johnson suggested that a sticker system of some kind would help identify the owner of the camper, but again, only if the camper owner purchases one. And people who come in from out of state would likely be less inclined to do so, even if they became aware of it.

“Hopefully through education and having a better presence up there, we would be able to inform people that they are required to have a sticker, that they can go down to one of our offices and talk to someone who would get them set up with a sticker.”

Most people in attendance said they wouldn’t mind paying for a sticker, as long as everyone has to do so.

“If it helps for me to pay 5 or 10 dollars to get a permit to put on my camper so it’s easier to find out who owns that trailer, then so be it,” said Tony Anson. “But someone still needs to come up and look at that sticker.”

Anson added that the penalties for campers that overstay the 14-day limit aren’t harsh enough to act as a deterrent.  People are willing to pay it at season’s end, believing it to be just like renting a cabin on the mountain.

Johnson said a district court judge establishes what the fines will be. This year, both the initial fine and the fee for each day beyond the original 14 went up. “We don’t have the ability to enforce it enough,” he said. “But we’ve written over 100 tickets so far this summer for violations of the camping stay limit — most of them on the south side.”

Further complicating matters, attendees questioned the rationale behind closing roads that have long been used to reach out-of-the-way camping spots.  Johnson said most of them were built for timber sales, not for long-term travel.  Foster said all the needs of users, and not just campers, are considered when roads are closed.  Wildlife is a consideration, too.

“There are a lot of roads that could partially be improved that would disperse that use better,” said Jeff Johnson, a frequent camper. “I’m not saying make everything a superhighway, but with road improvements come use.” 

Andrew Johnson, the forest supervisor, admitted, “Elk habitat is a big driver of a lot of our travel management decisions,” he said. “In partnership with Game and Fish, we are looking to find ways to have elk stay on public lands longer so they can be hunted.”

Jack Noyes said if the forest service really wanted to do that, it would “start taking away some of the livestock permits and shutting down some of the high-speed RV travel.”  

In encouraging input, Andrew Johnson said, “Nothing is off the table, nothing is on the table, we’re just trying to figure out what should be on the table.”

Foster promised a deliberate process moving forward.  The update of the special order will need to be resolved this winter, but the other recommendations of the task force will require “a pretty big component of public engagement,” which means more meetings and analysis. 

The likelihood of anything other than the special order being approved before next summer is “probably small,” admitted Foster. “But at the same time, it’s the main priority of the forest to try to address this. It’s not just a district issue, it’s an entire forest issue. That’s why Andrew’s here leading the charge to make sure we can move forward as constructively as possible while still providing public engagement at the local level.”