National forests provide a great diversity of outdoor recreation opportunities. We hike, bike, ride horses and off-highway vehicles, picnic, camp, explore local culture and history, hunt, fish, and view wildlife and scenery. We swoosh through or ride over snow on skis, snowboards, and snowmobiles. We marvel at natural features like Shell Falls and connect to the past when we visit the Medicine Wheel.
Outdoor recreation is fun. It provides physical challenges, requires development of life-long skills, provokes curiosity, and inspires wonder and awe of the natural world. Recreation contributes greatly to physical, mental, and spiritual health. It has become an essential part of our American culture.
Recreation wasn’t specifically included when the Forest Reserve Act was passed in 1891, though within a few years people were picnicking, hiking, climbing mountains, camping, hunting, and fishing on public lands.
Forest Service manuals in 1902 recognized the importance for the public to travel on the forest reserves (renamed as national forests in 1907) for pleasure and recreation. At this time recreation was considered to be secondary to other needs for forest management, like livestock grazing and timber harvesting.
Eventually the Forest Service realized that the national forests could serve many purposes, such as trails and roads, camping, picnicking, summer residences, and lodges and resorts. Published in 1907, The Use of the National Forests says, “Quite incidentally [emphasis added], also, the National Forests serve a good purpose as great playgrounds for the people. They are great recreation grounds for a very large part of the people of the West, and their value in this respect is well worth considering.”
A few years later the agency raised the issue of the need for sanitary regulations to protect public health in light of the fact that millions of pleasure seekers were indeed recreating in national forest playgrounds. The first official campground with picnic tables and outhouses was built in 1916 in Oregon’s Mt. Hood National Forest; by 1925 there were about 1,500 campgrounds in the national forests nationwide. Recreation as a bona fide use of national forests was slowly progressing. In the communities around the Bighorn National Forest, it was progressing apace.
In the 1890s, people were hitching up their wagons to take Sunday drives in the Bighorns to enjoy a picnic and catch some fish. In 1893, Mr. D. A. Kingsbury, with Mrs. Kingsbury and infant daughter Julia, enjoyed a camping trip along a creek a couple miles north of what is now Highway 16. They named the creek Baby Wagon as they had brought along a buggy for Julia.
William Henry Jackson’s photographs and Thomas Moran’s paintings inspired early 20th century easterners to experience firsthand their romanticized views of the Wild West, where the adventurous dudes were accommodated at cattle ranches turned into dude ranches. Eastern tourists couldn’t travel to Europe during World War I, so they began looking west for vacation opportunities.
Local businessmen and the media promoted the tourist trade and brought new attention to the Bighorn National Forest’s recreation potential. In July 1919 the Sheridan Post published a feature story titled “Making the Big Horn Forest the Playground of the Nation.” Recreation blossomed when better automobiles and improved roads connected the communities across the Bighorns in the 1920s.
The Bighorn National Forest developed its first formal recreation plan in 1929 and by its publication in 1932, the forest’s map shows several developed campgrounds across the forest. Recognition of the forest’s recreation potential was timely because in the 1930s and 1940s, enrollees in Franklin Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps built a tremendous amount of roads, trails, campgrounds, dams, fences, bridges, telephone lines, ranger stations, and fire lookouts in the Bighorns.
Outdoor recreation ranks today as one of the major uses of national forests and is a key economic driver for our local communities. The Bighorn National Forest is still providing outdoor experiences that strengthen and deepen connections between people and the natural world, 124 years after Julia Kingsbury’s first camping trip.
Susan Douglas is a public affairs specialist with the Bighorn National Forest.