SHERIDAN — One does not have to drive far to notice the dozens of campers and RVs parked among the trees from a common Forest Service Road in the Bighorn Mountains. Dispersed camping is likely one of the the most popular recreational activities in the Bighorn National Forest.
The Bighorn National Forest has a set of rules for dispersed camping, but those orders expire at the end of the year. Forest officials are now grappling with the idea of simply renewing the orders for another five years, or changing the orders to address issues that are common with dispersed camping.
This was one of the topics discussed during the Bighorn National Forest Steering Committee field trip Wednesday in the Medicine Wheel Ranger District. The steering committee is made up of U.S. Forest Service managers, county commissioners, conservation districts and state agencies.
Some of the more common issues that were mentioned are overcrowding and lack of availability of campsites in popular areas. Many of the trailers found in the forest are left unoccupied.
“Sometimes those trailers can sit for much longer than 14 days,” said Dave McKee, a USFS recreation staff officer.
The current rules require campers to move at least 5 miles after 14 days.
Camp trailers are often left on the mountain unoccupied, which can cause frustration around the holidays for other recreationists seeking a place to camp.
Other issues are camping distance parameters — campers are required to camp no more than 300 feet from a Forest Service road, but many will camp farther away from the road to camp in the tree line.
The fact that these issues exist shows a need for change, but to do this in the best way possible requires input from the public and stakeholders, officials said.
“We are working to find different perspectives and work it out, not fight over it,” said Bill Bass, forest supervisor.
The Big Horn Mountain Coalition hosted a series of workshops last spring on the issues of dispersed camping in the four counties that are part of the forest. The coalition made a report to forest officials with their findings. Washakie County Commissioner Terry Wolf has been with the coalition since 2003 and is currently the board chairman. Wolf noted that one of the common themes from the public discussions was that USFS officials need to enforce existing regulations rather than create new ones.
Bass expressed his appreciation for the efforts that the coalition made to get a sense of how the public feels about dispersed camping and acknowledged that it is an important part of public recreation. But Bass also cautioned a need to gather different viewpoints, especially from those who are affected by dispersed camping.
“For instance, some people who have grazing permits may say that dispersed campers make it harder for me to move my livestock,” Bass said.
Bighorn National Forest officials are considering avenues of gathering information and opinions of those who value dispersed camping and from those who are impacted by it. This would require public collaborative work to devise potential changes to the rules.
The current rules will expire at the end of December but, according to Bass, any changes can be added to the rules even after they are renewed. He added, thought, that forest officials want any changes to be vetted by the public.
“If folks enjoy camping, or they don’t — get them to the table,” Bass emphasized. “Getting those people to engage for us is the hard part.”
Those wishing to voice their opinions on dispersed camping can either contact the Bighorn National Forest at 674-2600, Big Horn Mountain Coalition at firstname.lastname@example.org or the Sheridan County Conservation District at 672-5820, ext. 3.