SHERIDAN — While traveling through the Bighorn National Forest this year, visitors may encounter surveys being conducted on highways, at campgrounds and at trailheads.
Bighorn National Forest staff members started conducting user surveys earlier this month and will continue until next October to find out how visitors use the forest.
BNF public affairs specialist Susie Douglas said the surveys are conducted every five fiscal years in every national forest nationwide, staggering the survey years so only certain forests are conducting the surveys each year.
The first survey in the Bighorn National Forest was conducted in 2008, followed by one in 2013 and this year’s is for fiscal year 2018, which started Oct. 1.
BNF recreation, lands, heritage and wilderness staff officer Dave McKee said the surveys are voluntary and take about 10 to 15 minutes to complete. The questions don’t include personal information, such as names, but do ask about where visitors come from and how much money visitors spend on trips.
The economic questions help to get a read on the impact of visitation to the local economy.
Surveys help BNF officials determine how well its doing when it comes to public service as well as helps identify the right place to put limited resources, both in terms of funding as well as people, when it comes to hiring and presence on the forest.
“We have to prioritize our funding and spend it in the places people want to visit,” Douglas said. “It helps the managers direct funding to sites and activities the public most wants to use.”
The surveys help groups beyond the BNF, as well. It helps state and county entities know why people come to areas and what services they desire. That information is also vital to businesses in the communities around the national forests.
Congress can also use the surveys when setting up the budget for federal agencies.
McKee said through the last two surveys he’s determined the most popular activities include scenery and wildlife viewing and scenic driving, but many participate in other activities like camping, hiking, hunting and fishing.
He said most visitors come from the surrounding four-county area, but the Bighorns do see many visitors passing between visiting Mount Rushmore National Memorial and Yellowstone National Park.
While the BNF isn’t looking to increase usage from any demographic, Douglas said that information helps determine how to communicate with the public. Since past surveys, the BNF has started using social media more to communicate.
“We realized that younger people are more apt to visit the forest when we can reach out to them in ways that they want to get information,” Douglas said.
Other projects that have come from past surveys include improving interpretive messages and signage, providing quality information services as well as quality services at campgrounds and visitors centers and trying to get upgrades to certain sites.
“That’s our saying that we want to deliver the best customer service we can,” Douglas said. “And this is one way for us to know what that might mean.”