Bighorn storage area should be kept open, residents say

Ryan Fitzmaurice
Community members are crying foul on the U.S. Forest Service closure of a storage area that has been used by recreational users in the Big Horn Mountains, for nearly half a century, stating that their portrayal of the area is inaccurate and its closure is wrongheaded. 

Forest Supervisor Andrew Johnson signed a new occupancy and use special order in May regulating camping and other recreational activities. The order prohibits camping in the Bighorn National Forest for more than 14 days within a 28-day period without moving equipment and personal property a minimum of five road miles after the 14th day.

In September, the Forest Service highlighted one area in particular they said was in violation of the rule. Just off Forest Service Road 648 lies a storage area where the Forest Service said several campers have been abandoned for multiple years. 

“It’s something that’s needed to have been addressed for years,” acting public affairs officer Lisa Balch said. “They’re not authorized to be there. It was never designated as a storage area by us. It was just turned into that. It’s one area that we need to get cleaned up.”

That’s simply, in no terms, true, according to former Big Horn County Commissioner Keith Grant. Grant wrote a letter to Johnson last week detailing his objections.

“In the early to mid 1980s Medicine Wheel District Ranger Pete Chidsey, after consulting with the Bighorn Forest Service Supervisor, gave Ferrell Mangus authorization to develop this storage area,” Grant wrote. “Ferrell, myself and a few others leveled, graded and hauled gravel for this storage area. The gravel was donated by the Forest Service from a gravel pit south of Highway 14A. This was done at no cost to the Forest Service.”

Bob Mangus, a longtime resident of the area since childhood, backs up Grant’s account.

“I was just a little kid, but my Dad was involved and I went with them. They decided that was the best place for a storage area with no resource damage,” Mangus said. “A little bit of road work needed to be done, but we were given permission to bring a loader up, move the rocks and build the road at our own expense. We could gravel that, and we could use it for a storage area. It came directly from the ranger. We had an older loader and a dump truck. We went up there, moved a few rocks, trimmed a few trees, went over, got the gravel, smoothed it out and it’s worked for years and years and years.”

Mangus said the agreement made between community members and Chidsey was essentially a handshake agreement and did not believe there was documentation verifying the agreement. 

“Most of the people who camped up there didn’t want to take them home. There were times there were almost 50 trailers up there,” Mangus said. “It worked very well.”

In a letter to Grant sent Tuesday, Johnson acknowledged that the Forest Service misrepresented the history of the storage area, but defended his decision to pursue its closure.

“While I do not disagree with you that the storage area has provided a benefit to the public, I do not agree that it has been relatively free of problems,” Johnson wrote.   “We have seen an increasing amount of garbage, resource damage and, most concerningly, abandoned vehicles and property there.  National Forest lands are simply not a dumping ground  or storage lot for private property.  The issues this storage area is generating are creating an unnecessary and undue cost to the taxpayers.  Some of this change is likely directly related to the increasing amount of visitor use and dispersed camping the Forest is experiencing.

“What may have worked in the past just is not any more.”

Grant, though, in a discussion with the Chronicle Tuesday, said he doesn’t see many of the problems the Forest Service is citing, stating that he has recently been to the area and has identified five trailers that are likely abandoned.

“Five trailers in 40 years, isn’t much of a problem,” Grant said. “If it is a problem, it’s just because you haven’t enforced the regulations until this year.”

He expanded in his letter.

“I reviewed the approved storage area yesterday, and I counted eight camp trailers. Three had current plates. I would guess the owners of these will be using them soon. Four are probably junk. There is an old school bus with Sheridan plates. It also looks very junky,” Grant wrote. “I would say there are five problems in over 40 years, 1.1 per 10 years. How bad is that with no enforcement?”

It’s more than just a squabble over a gravel pit, Grant told the Chronicle. The decision to close the storage area could be a decision that costs lives. Grant noted that a sign installed near the Burgess Junction even proclaims the Highway 14A road traveling down the Big Horn Mountains to be steep and dangerous.

“If you force a higher amount of campers to go down that highway, it will not surprise me if we see crashes and fatalities increase,” Grant said. 

Both Grant and Mangus rejected a proposed idea for the Forest Service to use a private concessionaire to hold trailers off the mountain, stating the service is unnecessary and would be unlikely to be used.

“If campers have to head off the mountain, they’re just going to head back home,” Mangus said. 

Grant said in his letter that he feels the decision reflects a greater disconnect between the Forest Service and the public.

“I have always felt we have a good partnership with the Forest Service and that it works as it should. There has been a total overturn of the Bighorn Forest staff over the years and a huge change in opinions,” Grant said. “I do not believe that partnership still exists.”

Johnson said in his response that storage areas were a topic in public meetings regarding dispersed camping held last year, leading to the decision. 

“Throughout the many public meetings on dispersed camping we frequently discussed the concept of storage areas and the issues with this one storage site,” Johnson said.  “We have been very clear that any storage areas would need to be actively managed to avoid the problems of the current site.”

But Grant heard a very different consensus in an August public forum held in Lovell.

“What I heard loud and  clear was all that is needed is the enforcement of your current laws,” Grant wrote. 

Grant told the Chronicle the storage area in question is a perfect example of that disconnect. 

“If it’s in violation, you don’t just let it go for 40 years,” Grant said.