SHERIDAN — Born and raised in Sheridan, Sheridan County Commissioner Mike Nickel has seen the Bighorn Mountains become “discovered.”
In the last 10 to 15 years especially, dispersed camping has greatly increased but the bandwidth of the Bighorn National Forest to withstand the masses needs help from a group of interested individuals.
The Bighorn Mountain Coalition, made up of county commissioners from the four counties encompassing the Bighorns, and the Bighorn National Forest created a task force to consider the issues and come up with some ideas.
While no set regulations or ideas will be instituted likely until the summer of 2020, the group has several ideas to explore for the time being.
The Bighorn National Forest currently allows dispersed camping throughout the areas outside of traditional campgrounds. People with campers can set up camp in one location for up to 14 days but then must move their camper to a different location to stay within the bounds of the BNF regulations.
What happens, though, is some choose to pay the minimal fine instead of move their camper out of convenience, or they will move their campers back and forth in the same area, wearing down the area of land by creating unnatural ruts on the forest roads.
The U.S. Forest Service overall has endured several budget cuts in the past few years, directly affecting law enforcement services through the USFS.
“The group talked a little bit about enforcement, and we pretty much came to the conclusion that you really don’t need additional rules, but it’s more important to be able to enforce the rules that we do have,” Nickel said.
By the end of the summer, the task force will have plans that the BNF staff can begin implementing in the summer of 2020. USFS recreation staff officer Dave McKee said the five areas in which the task force is looking to improve are enforcement, funding, camping opportunities, education and restoration. Revenue streams do not flow toward enforcement, McKee said. Options for revenue include sticker programs similar to programs for boats and off-road vehicles for the area, but no decisions have been made.
BNF staff approached the Bighorn Mountain Coalition about the task force initially, which is the first movement toward action Nickel has seen about the issue outside of anecdotal solutions.
“It’s the first time I’ve seen some action that may result in something happening,” Nickel said.
McKee said encouraging movement on the mountain has also been brought up within the group, but how to encourage those people to move without creating more long-term damage is the more difficult discussion. Restoration of “well-loved” areas are also a necessity. The safety of leaving campers along Forest Service roads for extended periods of time is also concerning for people’s safety. Nickel explained one summer where the mountain experienced a microburst of weather, causing the partial destruction of a camper. The owners were nowhere to be found, making it difficult for forest enforcement to ensure the campers were safe.
Possible options of sticker programs are in discussion, as well as possible designated parking areas for camper owners to park when their trailers are not in use, allowing more open spots for campers.
“If you aren’t gonna be there couple weeks, they could leave it there, but (the task force needs to) work on the details,” Nickel said. “There are security and liability issues with that.”
The task force will visit areas in the Sheridan County portion of the Bighorns at the end of June to see what type of land they will need to maintain, restore and regulate.