SHERIDAN — The Bighorn National Forest will soon act on dispersed camping solutions brought forward two years ago by the Big Horn Mountain Coalition Dispersed Camping Task Force.
The suggestions — which range from requiring a dispersed camping sticker for campers to implementing a year-round 14-day stay limit — are all intended to address some common issues with dispersed camping, or camping outside of a designated campground, said Bighorn National Forest recreation staff officer Andrea Maichak.
These issues include overcrowding and lack of availability of campsites in popular areas, Maichak said, and have gotten worse in recent years.
“I had a chance to work for the forest in 2005 as a dispersed recreation and (off-highway vehicle) technician,” Maichak said. “I can share with you that in 2005, dispersed recreation was a concern for the forest and the public as well. And I know since 2005, that concern has continued to grow.”
Currently, the forest requires campers to move at least 5 miles after 14 days in one location. However, many campers, trailers and recreational vehicles are left on the mountain unoccupied for much longer than 14 days, which can cause frustration for other recreationists who are following the rules and seeking a new place to camp every 14 days.
One potential solution forwarded by the task force is the implementation of a yearly sticker all dispersed campers would have to purchase, Maichak said.
Andrew Johnson, Bighorn National Forest supervisor, said the sticker would make it much easier to contact users who are violating the forest’s 14-day rule.
“If we’re selling those stickers, we have those peoples’ names and addresses and phone numbers (and)…that will all be retained in a secure database….” Johnson said. “The key is that we know who they are. So when we see a sticker, it’s easy for employees in the field to contact our district offices and find out who has a certain sticker number.”
The sticker would have other values outside of dispersed camping enforcement too, Maichak said.
“Last year, when the fires started, we were really scrambling to move the campers away from… the closure areas,” Maichak said. “So… it would be much easier for us to contact the owners of the campers if we had special numbers associated with each sticker.”
In addition, the forest is considering extending the 14-day stay order throughout the year. Currently, the order extends from June 1 through Sept. 30, and campers can stay in one place for as long as they want outside of those four months, Maichak said.
Bighorn National Forest is currently the only national forest without year-round limits on dispersed camping, Maichak said.
Another proposed change would clarify how far a camper would need to travel when moving after a 14-day stay, Maichak said. The current rule is they must travel 5 “air miles” or the distance measured by traveling in the air. Maichak admitted this guidance was confusing for drivers.
“We recognize that air miles are very difficult to determine when you’re actually on the ground camping,” Maichak said. “…One of the recommendations the task force had was changing it to road miles. That way you can get in your vehicle, look at the odometer and determine how far you need to go before you can camp again.”
All potential changes will be open to public comment before being implemented, Tongue District Ranger Amy Ormseth said. Ormseth expects the public comment process to begin this summer, but a specific timeline and plan has not been determined at this point.
“I want to make sure people have their voices in the room,” Ormseth said. “Obviously, we know this could be a contentious issue with some folks, and I want to make sure people feel like they have an opportunity to voice their concerns.”
All the suggestions currently being considered were brought to forest staff nearly two years ago by members of the Big Horn Mountain Coalition Dispersed Camping Task Force, comprising concerned citizens from Sheridan, Johnson, Big Horn and Washakie counties.