SHERIDAN — The folks who make up the Bighorn National Forest team work throughout the year, but summer serves as a time when new initiatives begin to sprout and the work ramps up.
Bighorn National Forest recreation program manager Dave McKee works with ever-decreasing recreation budgets but still tries to provide necessary improvements and educational opportunities for anyone visiting the forest.
Changes this year include the closing of the Burgess Junction Visitor Center and the reopening of improved Shell Falls Interpretive Site. Burgess Junction closed September 2012 due to budget cuts but reopened for the 2017 summer season while Shell Falls closed for improvements. The U.S. Forest Service plans to showcase the widened interpretive trail starting Memorial Day weekend and will keep it open until Labor Day. Because the forest service’s budget cannot support both sites, McKee said he and other employees are seeking proposals for someone to contract with the USFS to run the visitor center for alternative uses such as a group event center, weddings or receptions and outdoor education programs.
The USFS currently has no official proposal submissions but has an interested party looking into the potential contract.
Decreased funding means more reliance on volunteers. In the 2017 summer season, volunteers contributed 3,000 hours and, combined with hired crews, more than 200 miles of maintenance on forest trails.
In an effort to accumulate more statistics regarding recreation throughout the BNF, local hires through an $86,000 contract completed 50 of the total 191 survey days in the forest. Surveyors asked questions of recreators including where they were from, how long and where they spent their time while at the BNF, activities they participated in and how much they spent on those activities.
Upon completion of the random survey days Sept. 30, results will be compiled and available for the public. McKee said the survey results will be especially helpful to businesses in the surrounding communities that provide goods and services for those recreating in the forest.
Upcoming summer trail work will include new planking on the trail bridge in Tongue River Canyon and replacement of the three foot bridges along the Bucking Mule Fall Trail. Forest service employees will also replace the campground toilets at West Ten Sleep Lake.
BNF will again partner with Cloud Peak Chapter – Wilderness Watch to conduct studies on the trails in the Cloud Peak Wilderness. A grant will help fund two interns for the studies, providing approximately $100 per day from June through August. Training and preparation for the task will be provided by the forest service.
Regulations for dispersed camping will continue with no changes from the 2017 season. Campers may spend 14 consecutive days in the same area but must move five air miles away after that time period. McKee said regulating dispersed camping is still a battle and the forest service still has a long way to go in perfecting regulation, but they work with the patrol staff on hand. The BNF completed 93 formal patrol days in 2017. Forest service personnel will continue educating recreators as proactively as possible to keep both winter and summer recreation within the bounds of the law.
Gillian Malone, a recreator of the Bighorn National Forest, was encouraged by the increased monitoring, especially for motorized use. Malone often drives up Red Grade Road and sees “out of control” drivers.
“There needs to be a (law enforcement) presence to monitor speed and noise,” Malone said.
Jenny Williams, a fellow BNF recreator, said certain trails, including Red Grade and the “Solitude Trail” — Trail No. 38 — are supposed to be quiet and tranquil places, and she finds the excess use of motorized vehicles unpleasant.
In the winter season alone, McKee said forest service patrol officers made 2,000 contacts with snowmobilers specifically and made 12,400 contacts with motorized vehicle users in total from June 1 to October 30, 2017.
As the season transitions from winter to spring and eventually summer, forest service crews continue to regulate use within the forest while preparing for the busy season ahead.