As campers continue to flood into national forests — often towing large trailers, side-by-sides or outdoor gear — districts across Wyoming are taking steps to increase capacity, regulate use, protect resources and generate revenue for upkeep.  

Visitation and participation data indicates outdoor recreation’s popularity is here to stay, prompting overburdened staff to rethink camping management with both human behavior and the health of the landscape in mind. 

Here’s a look at three initiatives taking place across Wyoming’s vast acreage of national forest. 

New rules in the Bighorns 

On the 1.1-million-acre Bighorn National Forest, Supervisor Andrew Johnson recently signed an updated order with new rules aimed to address long-standing dispersed camping problems in the popular northern Wyoming forest.

“We were hearing loud and clear from members of the public, forest users, county commissioners, members of our communities that addressing the dispersed camping challenges was important to folks,” Johnson said at a June steering committee meeting. The long-simmering problems mostly revolve around users “saving” spots by parking empty vehicles there or overstaying their limit. 

A tent and RV occupy a campsite on the Bighorn National Forest, though humans aren’t visible on site. (Courtesy/Bighorn National Forest)

The district has extended the forest’s 14-day stay limit to year-round. In addition, when visitors hit the stay limit, forest regulations will require them to move any personal property five road miles before establishing a new campsite. Wildlife attractant storage is also required, prompted by increasing bear conflicts, Johnson said.

The problems stretch back decades, Johnson said, and stem from issues like diminishing availability of sites in light of growing crowds, an inadequate ability to enforce camping limits and resource damage caused by overuse and rogue trails. 

One of the biggest “complaints our front desks and our employees get,” Johnson said, “is all of the unattended property.”

Compounding the issue, Johnson said, has been under-staffing, which hampered the agency’s ability to enforce the stay limit. The district recently secured funding to hire a number of patrol positions, which he said should help to educate users and enforce the rules. Staff will also make a concerted effort to remove abandoned property from the forest, he said. 

The new rules are the result of a process initiated around 2016 that led to the creation of a dispersed camping task force, which issued recommendations to the forest in 2020. Those recommendations also included: creating a sticker program to authorize dispersed camping, identifying designated dispersed camping sites and expanding a trailhead to allow overnight camping. Those could still be considered down the line, Johnson said, noting the forest will reevaluate the rules at the end of the year. 

A new court-ordered fee schedule calls for higher penalties for violations of the rules, Johnson added. Violators will now be charged $100 after the 14th day, with a $30 processing fee plus an additional $20 per day over the limit. “And that adds up,” he said. “So there’s a much better deterrent I think for folks overstaying the 14-day limit.”

Improving a hard-hit area in the Bridger-Teton 

Bridger-Teton National Forest is midway through plans to improve a campground that’s been hit particularly hard by visitation. Curtis Canyon Campground sits less than 10 miles from Jackson Hole and butts up to Grand Teton National Park and crucial winter wildlife range. 

“That proximity makes it a really valuable area,” said Linda Merigliano, U.S. Forest Service recreation wilderness program manager. “And then also, the views are spectacular.”

Hordes of campers have flocked to Curtis Canyon in recent years. A heavy concentration of dispersed camping and off-highway vehicle use combined with a lack of road maintenance have resulted in serious road deterioration as well as vegetation loss, human waste issues, poor visitor experience and public safety concerns, according to the Forest Service. 

A vehicle struggles with road damage near Curtis Canyon. (Bridger-Teton National Forest)

So when the Bridger-Teton secured access to $500,000 in federal Infrastructure Act funds, Curtis Canyon was an obvious candidate for improvements, Merigliano said. The agency in January released a scoping document proposing several upgrades to the area.  

They include: repairing the access road; expanding the first-come-first-served campground with 22 new campsites and a pit toilet; restoring damaged areas such as unauthorized road spurs; and relocating the popular Goodwin Lake trailhead.

The forest had already implemented a designated site program, added signs and recruited a camping ambassador to educate and assist visitors at Curtis Canyon. 

“These actions have helped reduce impacts but have not kept pace with increased use,” the scoping document reads. “The time for repeated band-aids has passed.” 

The forest accepted comments through March 3.

Merigliano was part of a site visit last week, and said the road to Curtis Canyon has only worsened under recent rainy conditions. Gullies and deep ruts thread through the road, and pond-sized puddles necessitate high-clearance vehicles, she said. 

More field survey work needs to occur to inform projects like campground expansion and trailhead work, she said, but the agency is likely to issue a decision soon on the road repair in order to get started on drainage improvements ASAP. 

“It’s pretty bad right now,” she said of the road condition.

This map shows the location of proposed projects in Curtis Canyon, Bridger-Teton National Forest. (USFS)

Of the 32 comments submitted for the scoping document, many supported the general concept of improvements. One commenter wondered, however, where the cycle of crowd-fueled damage ends. 

“What has happened there in the past decade-plus is disheartening to say the least,” Franz Camenzind wrote. “What is being proposed is a good start to better manage in the area and slow its degradation. Ironically, what is being proposed will only bring more visitors to the are (sic) and bring more impacts and challenges.”

The Bridger-Teton is also planning improvements to trailheads and trails in the busy Granite Creek corridor. 

New fee proposal in the Med-Bow 

The Medicine Bow-Routt National Forests and Thunder Basin National Grassland are proposing fee increases at 93 day-use and campground sites in the 2.9-million-acre system spanning eastern Wyoming and northern Colorado.  

The increases will allow the agency to keep up with demand, address deferred maintenance and “be able to put a good product out for the American public,” said Aaron Voos, a public affairs officer for Medicine Bow-Routt National Forests and Thunder Basin National Grassland. 

The move is overdue, he said. “We have not done a good job with that for a variety of reasons over the last 20-plus years since we increased the fees back in 2002,” he said. “We’re trying to just catch up.”

Wildfires, the bark beetle epidemic and other issues have dominated the agency’s work in recent years, he said. In the meantime, maintenance work has accumulated, and sites need upgrades to accommodate evolving needs like the ubiquity of camper trailers. The fee proposal also folds into a larger strategy of accommodating growing use. 

A tent in the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest. (U.S. Forest Service)

The Med-Bow proposal would hike fees at 67 existing sites and institute them at 26 others — 60 are in Wyoming. At Vedauwoo Campground, for example, fees would increase to $20 per site from $10, while use of the gazebo would increase to $75 a day from $50. Funds will be used for everything from road improvements to toilet services. 

National forest visits are increasing, Voos said, and Med-Bow district managers want to point people to developed recreation sites, partially because “it helps take some of the impacts of dispersed recreation off of the forest.” 

Comments will be accepted through Nov. 1. The district will hold public open houses, including several in July

CORRECTION: This article has been updated to correct Aaron Voos’ name -Ed.

Katie Klingsporn reports on outdoor recreation, public lands, education and general news for WyoFile. She’s been a journalist and editor covering the American West for 20 years. Her freelance work has...

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  1. Well done on this report! We need less people living in the National Forests not improved facilities. Look at all the available BLM land in Wyoming out in the prairies next to small towns that are barely making it. These people are not campers coming here, they are homeowners turning their homes into income producing AirBnBs for the summer, they are RV Dwellers looking for the absolute cheapest places to park, they are people who set up complete homes in prime campgrounds and commute back and forth to town in the cars they have towed or their significant others have followed them with. Get rid of them, change the rules, limit stays to one week, close overused campgrounds, don’t improve them, spend the money building RV parks on BLM Land near our small towns, out in the flat, out in the wind, out where they can learn to appreciate and enjoy Wyoming and get involved with our communities rather than sitting watching TV from our National Forest campgrounds. We are so close to a declining population now, this is the best news for all of us and our planet but our economists lack the imagination to see the paradisiacal situation just over the horizon and begin meaningful discussions on restructuring our economy, it’s pathetic. Wake up Wyoming, practical conservatism, the progressive conservatism that gave this country the Equality State needs to lead, not flounder in out of date thinking from the West Coast or foolish pride in a totally failed bully populism from the East Coast. Get these people out of our National Forest campgrounds.

  2. There are two massive problems in modern camping, generators and LED lighting. Folks come into campsites in massive moble motels, fire up their generators, hang strings of obnoxiously bright lights all over and then sit inside and watch TV. So they destory the quiet, washout the night sky and care nothing for the comfort of their neighbors. The Golden Age of camping is long gone.

  3. Interesting that many of the campers in the Curtis Canyon area are actually summer workers was not mentioned. Something that has been happening for more than 40 years. Maybe someday the large businesses in Jackson Hole will take some responsibility and build staff housing like Grand Teton Lodge Co(Jackson Lake Lodge/ Coulter Bay) has done for decades.

  4. There needs to strict rules governing ATV’s. These things are a menace to a peaceful camping experience. Some of them go back and forth all day long.

  5. I’ve noticed that more and more Forest Service roads are marked as closed in the Bighorns making dispersed camping less and less available while some popular developed campgrounds are also closed, i.e., Crazy Woman campground and Bull Run Campground. We keep getting pushed out of some great areas and squeezed into smaller and smaller areas that leads to overuse and overcrowding which leads to closures. It’s a never ending circle.

  6. I have been to almost every USFS operation in the past 24 years and based on my anecdotal experience the Med-Bow provides less service in the form of drinking water than any other similar sized forest. The remnants of a hand pump were present last time I looked at Vedauwoo campground but I have never seen it operate, nor am I privy to why it is not operational? It would be interesting to see how many campgrounds across Wyoming have water available and the rationale for why there are seemingly so few in the Med-Bow?

    Another small quibble is the use of “pit toilet”. While there needs to be some “pit toilets” in low volume, inaccessible locations, most of the pit toilets were required to be closed. Hopefully in large developed recreational sites the USFS is installing vault toilets.

    EPA requiring the closure of pit toilets can be found here:

  7. Living adjacent to the Bridger-Teton National Forest, I’m seeing more and more “boon-dockers” arrive before the permitted camping areas open, then staying for days. The forest pit toilets are not open nor are there any camp staff around to check on campfires used by these folks. I get that people want things for free – like using public camping areas without paying for the privilege – but their activities pose both sanitary (proper disposal of human waste) and fire (unattended campfires) risks.
    With our bountiful snow and rain this past winter and spring, the risk of fire is currently low, but that’s not been the norm. As more people see freeloaders, they have the same sense of entitlement and camp on public land wherever/whenever they will, regardless of the impact to environment and migrating wildlife. If locals want to keep our pristine forest areas in that condition in the future, we’ll have to speak up.