In his 45 years residing in Wyoming’s scenic Upper Green River Valley, Arthur Kolis has witnessed a troubling evolution in both the prevalence and norms of dispersed camping along the river as it flows from Green River Lakes.
“I used to fish my way along the river, but now it’s occupied territory,” Kolis said of the area, which lies within the Pinedale Danger District of the Bridger-Teton National Forest. “More people, more usage, bigger rigs.”
Along with the river corridor being more crowded, he said, he has also witnessed a general disregard of both 14-day limits for camping and the requirement that camps be 100 feet from water.
Campers used to park their rigs on the west side of the road, away from the river, Kolis said. Now, though, a two-track road right next to the east bank of the river is “beaten in,” with big rigs camped only feet from the river bank.
Kolis’ observations match a trend that is being reported on public lands across the West: more people are utilizing dispersed camping, i.e. laying their heads outside of formal campgrounds, and reports are mounting of people ignoring the rules designed to minimize their impacts such as buffer zones around sensitive habitat, waste removal requirements and stay-length limits. The situation has created a headache for public land managers, who are often too understaffed and ill-equipped to get a handle on it. And Wyoming isn’t immune.
Pinedale District Ranger Rob Hoelscher acknowledged that regular flouting of the regulations in his district is a problem.
“We try, we make every effort,” Hoelscher said. “We’re doing the best we can with the funding we get.”
Tin villages and sanitation issues
Rob Tolley lives close to the same Forest Service road that Kolis finds problematic. From his home, Tolley is “in position to view the tin villages” arrayed along the river bank leading to the lakes, he said.
“They’re eyesores, camped right on the river, and I’ve seen as many as seven or eight rigs at one site,” Tolley said. “There’s no reason to have that many trailers pulled in at the same spot. That’s not dispersed.”
Tolley says he often sees “a rig parked for as much as three weeks, and most often unoccupied.” Additionally, he suggested, there’s been an increase in “residential camping” — when someone works in the area and stays in the same campsite for as long as a month.
“I’m more concerned with ‘unoccupancy’ than with overstay,” he said. “It really gets me — when you park your rig and leave it, no one else can use that site.”
Accountability and responsibility are hard to pin down, he observed.
“Pinedale people blame Rock Springs, Rock Springs says it’s Pinedale, they both say it’s people from Salt Lake City, so they say, ‘I’m going to grab my site or someone else will grab it.’”
Sanitation is another concern, he said, in that RVs are often perched right on the river bank.
“I’ve seen at least one person discharge waste directly into the river,” he said. “I report these things, but I’ve never seen anyone asked to move.”
Hoelscher said his agency works to stem the tide of abuse, but is limited by manpower.
Several Bridger-Teton National Forest officials confirmed that the agency only has only 2.5 law enforcement officers for the entire 3 million-acre unit, which sprawls over parts of five western Wyoming counties — Sublette, Teton, Lincoln, Park and Fremont.
National Forest documents show that fire-fighting and fire management expenditures now eat up more than half the agency’s budget, leading to the slashing of other initiatives such as law enforcement and recreation.
“We do have a limited number of law enforcement officers but we have forest protection officers who can write tickets,” Hoelscher said. “They’re more about helping to educate the public, focusing on proper food storage, prevention of bear encounters, and staying on roads.”
Hoelscher highlighted another problem that results from dispersed camping: “user created routes” — rutted two-tracks created by vehicles venturing farther and farther off main roads.
Instead of installing roadblocks and fences, he said, “to an extent, we’ve just accepted some impacted areas so campers won’t impact other areas.”
Kevin Broom is director of media relations for the RV Industry Association. He said he has not heard of abuse of dispersed camping regulations “in any broad way,” though from time to time he learns that someone has “done something irresponsible.” Most RV users, Broom said, “are responsible and take seriously their obligations” to protect public lands.
“RV users should follow rules protecting public land and most people do,” Broom said. “They’re camping because they love nature and beautiful places and they want to keep those places preserved for their children and grandchildren.”
Word spreads, campers come in droves
Dispersed camping (also called dry camping, boondocking or wild camping) refers to camping done for free and outside a designated campground. Both backpacking and RV camping are included in the designation, which often takes place on national forest or BLM land. And with a growing movement of camping fueled by trends like “vanlife” and ample online tips for finding free sites, dispersed camping appears to be on the rise.
The “free” RV camping in the Pinedale area — and across Wyoming — is also widely publicized on the internet, with numerous websites providing a steady flow of tips for finding idyllic camping spots. The Upper Green River corridor is widely touted as a premier destination for campers.
“Take a dead-end dirt road, and send it deep into Wyoming’s utterly spectacular Wind River Mountains where a pair of large natural high alpine lakes and the mighty Green River flows from its headwaters,” one enthusiastic camper writes online. “This is truly one of the most aesthetically stunning boondocking sites we’ve ever found, and that’s saying a lot.”
And while many in Wyoming have long advocated that the state better diversify its economy with tourism, Forest Service officials and members of the public alike cite the increased popularity of camping, particularly RV camping, as a contributing factor to abuse of dispersed camping regulations.
The popularity of camping in the U.S. reached a new high in 2018 — 78.8 million households reported going camping, an increase of 22% since 2014, according to the KOA North American Camping Report.
The increase in dispersed camping has also had negative effects on the coffers of land managers. Brian Waugh, a recreation official on the Brush Creek/Hayden District of the Medicine Bow National Forest, said.
“Our main concern is the number of access roads close to campgrounds, allowing campers to avoid paying fees,” he said. Campground revenue is down two-thirds from several years ago, he said, while dispersed campers help themselves to campground facilities such as bathrooms, water taps and garbage cans.
Early in the camping season, he added, his office has observed campers driving their rigs up the Jack Creek Road on the Sierra Madre, and staying for much of the summer. The district used to allow camping for 21 days, but recently reduced that to 16 days. After that limit, campers are supposed to move three miles away and not return to the original camp within a 30-day period, he said.
“But there’s no teeth in it,” he said. “There’s no way that law enforcement can cover every nook and cranny in the forest.”
Tackling the problem in the Big Horns
Big Horn National Forest officials have also grappled with increasing congestion and environmental damage caused by unenforced dispersed camping.
The agency attempted four or five years ago to address obvious abuse by writing new regulations, according to BHNF Public Affairs Officer Sarah Evans Kirol.
“The public was having difficulty finding camping locations,” she said. “People were staying longer than the limit and playing a lot of tricks to avoid being caught, and to use their space all summer.”
In March of 2016, the Big Horn Mountain Coalition, composed of public officials from the four counties incorporating the BHNF (Big Horn, Johnson, Sheridan and Washakie) initiated a public discussion on the topic of dispersed camping in the Bighorn Mountains. This discussion took the form of public workshops held in each of the four counties.
The key issues considered were camping availability, enforcement of current regulations/increased funding for enforcement and public education to reduce environmental damage, according to a coalition document.
Public comment on the issues closed in September of 2019, and a meeting has been set for early November for “bringing the findings to the public.”
Comments show that the biggest complaint is that local campers have essentially established personal-use weekend cabins in the mountains, impacting the terrain and limiting opportunities for other users.
“So many people haul their camper up in June and leave it all summer,” a typical comment reads. “The forest belongs to all of us…not just a few people with big campers. Please, USFS, at least enforce current laws. I’ve seen campers stay in the same spot for weeks on end. Tow them off the mountain if they overstay the time limit.”
A pilot project implementing the Council’s findings will be in place the summer of 2020, Kirol said.
In Jackson, camping ambassadors
Nowhere in Wyoming is pressure for camping space greater than in Jackson Hole and the surrounding area. Along with being a major gateway to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, the region’s acute housing shortage, especially for summer seasonal workers, means that — at least in areas close to the parks — the Forest Service has had to tightly regulate dispersed camping.
Beginning in 1995, in the Jackson area, the limit for dispersed camping was reduced from 14 days to five, according to Linda Merigliano, recreation program manager for the Jackson and Black Rock ranger districts in the Bridger Teton National Forest.
Patrolling such a vast area and issuing fines would be futile, she said. Instead, the agency has recruited “camping ambassadors who work in an educational capacity only,” to keep track of vehicles and encourage campers to leave when their five-day limit has expired.
Such volunteers are essential to address the “big disconnect” between the huge uptick in usage of public lands and the limited ability of the Forest Service to hire more staff to patrol popular dispersed camping areas, according to Merigliano.
“You have to have people on the ground, writing down license plates, dates of arrival, and then checking the site 16 days later,” she said.
Ideally, she said, reliance on volunteers is a model that could spread to other areas hit hard by the problem.