Bighorn National Forest considering additional dispersed camping changes in near future

Ryan Fitzmaurice
Bighorn National Forest Supervisor Andrew Johnson has revealed several long-term actions being considered for dispersed camping in the year ahead, aiming to make dispersed camping more accessible to the public while preserving the natural resources of the mountain. 

“My predecessors’ approach is my approach,” Johnson told the Lovell Chronicle. “We are going to do the job with minimal restrictions. Our aim is to be the least invasive we can be.”

In 2016, the Big Horn Mountain Coalition, in coordination with Bighorn National Forest staff, initiated a public discussion of dispersed camping in the Forest.  The Coalition found the public agreed that issues with dispersed camping are a widespread problem.  In response, the Coalition solicited each of the four counties comprising the Forest to seek interested citizens to participate in a collaborative task force.  The goal of the Dispersed Camping Task Force was to review the findings of the Coalition surveys, hear the concerns of the Forest and work on building possible solutions.

Various community meetings were held in the summer of 2022 in Lovell, Greybull, Sheridan, Buffalo, Worland and Gillette, during which several approaches for managing dispersed camping going forward were discussed. 

Various changes have already been made this summer in relation to those discussions, Johnson said. The most significant changes included the changing of the 14-day stay requirement. While previously the requirement was only in effect seasonally during the summer, now the 14-day stay limit is in place year-round. 

Johnson said the change is made due to the greater number of people who are now enjoying the mountain. With fewer people camping, the seasonal restriction proved to be enough. Now, it is not preventing avoidable conflicts.

“The seasonal restriction worked a long time,” Johnson said. “It doesn’t work anymore.”

A significantly greater presence of forest rangers providing enforcement of dispersed camping rules has also been established, Johnson said. While the Bighorn National Forest previously employed three seasonal rangers with the authority to issue citations, funding was secured to hire nine full-time employees with the ability to issue citations on the mountain.

“We’re still finalizing our numbers for the summer, tracking incident reports, warnings issued and citations issued,” Johnson said. “We don’t have final numbers yet, but I can say that numbers are up a lot.”

The relocation distance required after those two weeks has also been changed. While campers were previously required to move five air miles from their previous location, the Forest Service received input that air miles were difficult for campers to measure. The rule has been changed to five road miles.

In a letter to former Big Horn County Commissioner Keith Grant on Oct. 3, Johnson revealed several other changes the Forest Service is evaluating for dispersed camping in the years ahead. 

The first is trailer parking options, with Johnson stating that the Forest Service is evaluating several options for long-term storage in the Big Horn Mountains. 

“We are exploring various sites as well as what legal authority we would have to authorize storage sites operated by private business to provide needed active management and security. It is my intent to make a decision on possible storage sites in 2024,” Johnson wrote in the letter. 

In a September press release Johnson stated the Forest Service is looking into establishing concessionaire services for private businesses to help establish long-term storage for camping trailers. In a discussion with the Chronicle this week, Johnson said the Forest Service is also open to still using public lands for long-term storage, and the agency is actively exploring that option, as well.

“If we are going to go down this pathway of dedicating public lands toward storing personal property we have to be careful,” Johnson said. “One of our roles is to provide opportunity to enjoy the mountain. We recognize that it’s not normal to have a storage site on public lands, but if that is a solution that will help us free up sites and maintain a healthy dispersed camping environment, that’s a direction we’re willing to head in.”

Johnson said the Forest Service is considering all road closure locations to see which currently closed locations might be appropriate for additional dispersed camping locations. Johnson said it largely depends on determining which roads were built to sustain heavier traffic and which roads were not. 

“Some of them were built for the specific purpose to access timber for a timber sale and not designed to have constant traffic,” Johnson said. “We’re asking if the reason we put the closure in place 20 to 30 years ago is still valid, and we will be making changes based on forest conditions. Our focus will remain providing as many camping opportunities as we can.”

Johnson said the Dayton Gulch area is one of the areas being looked at in this effort.

The Forest Service is also evaluating several locations to create designated dispersed camping sites, where the Bighorn National Forest will establish numbered camping sites in a location. Johnson said this will occur where dispersed camping is causing harm to natural resources.

“What we are doing is looking at locations where resource impacts are pretty significant,” Johnson said. 

Johnson highlighted the West Ten Sleep corridor as an example where designated dispersed camping sites were established due to sedimentation from campers ending up in a nearby creek. 

Other solutions are being placed to the side or have been determined to be ineffective. Johnson said a fee-based dispersed camping permit/sticker program has been shelved. The idea proposed would have charged campers a reasonable fee -- Johnson stated  the figure of $20, to camp throughout the summer. Those funds would go toward the enforcement of dispersed camping rules. 

Johnson said due to funds being secured in other ways, that program was deemed unnecessary. 

Johnson said a common misconception heard throughout communities is that the Bighorn National Forest could secure funds through issuing a greater number of citations. Johnson said funds gained through citations do not go to the Bighorn National Forest  but instead are sent directly to the U.S. Treasury.

“There’s zero incentive for us to write a ticket,” Johnson said. “It is purely based on if someone has earned and deserves it.”

Johnson finally responded to concerns that his staff wasn’t in touch with local communities and was implementing rules contrary to what local populations desire. Johnson said that the dispersed camping rule change process was very intentionally resident driven, with various community meetings and civilian task forces involved. Johnson said he intends to keep that approach moving forward.

“We continue to try and solicit feedback from the public. Our offices are open to the public. Our staff monitors public opinion. We take that into our decision making,” Johnson said. “The vast amount of decisions that go toward managing the Bighorn National Forest are made by the district rangers within the forest. We care about the Big Horns. We love the Big Horns. We always want to hear what people are thinking. We are always trying to align our work with the public interest.”