While the name Bridger-Teton National Forest may not immediately sound familiar, it’s where the 3.4 million-acre forest sits that makes it a national and international destination. Sandwiched between Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, Bridger-Teton covers a large part of Wyoming, and it is currently dealing with an explosion of visitors as our national lands become more and more popular.
Todd Stiles, a district ranger with the forest, says he’s seen crowds building consistently for the past five years, but with the recent COVID-19 pandemic, they’re dealing with even bigger numbers.
Stiles says while they’re happy to have the visitors, they have had to make changes to keep up with the crowds, many of whom are new to the outdoors. “In a lot of instances what we’re hearing from people is that it’s their first time camping. And whether they’re from Denver or Atlanta, or Houston, Texas, there’s people from everywhere,” says Stiles.
Popular campgrounds like Upper Teton View, officially called Toppings Lake, have seen some of the biggest influx of campers and RVs. To combat this, forest officials have been creating more signs and putting new rules in place to deal with what they say are three key issues.
Crowded Camping Areas
The first issue to tackle was dealing with crowds, trash and even damage to the dispersed campgrounds. With more visitors, people are taking up more space and some are damaging the natural surroundings. Forest officials say unfortunately once someone damages an area, the next visitor isn’t even aware that they shouldn’t be camping on that spot.
“Once one RV parks on sagebrush that’s all it takes. It’s a woody plant, so it breaks the stem and it’s down on the ground, and then to the next person, it just pretty much looks like, okay, that’s where I park, and people kind of follow the lead of others,” says Stiles.
He says certain areas that may have started off as a 50 by 50 foot area for an RV have grown to 100 by 100 feet. This is a problem they’re looking to put an end to by implementing designated dispersed camping spots.
They’ve also added stay limits. During peak months, people can only stay for five days, a dramatic decrease from what used to be two weeks. This allows more people to get a chance to stay in these popular campsites.
Communication has been a key factor for the initiative as well as working with volunteer groups such as Friends of the Bridger-Tetons. Together they reach out to visitors to help them better understand the steps they need to take to keep the area preserved for the next visitor.
They have also worked to post signs stating the restrictions and a large sign that allows visitors to know when the campgrounds are full in hopes of stopping some RVs from driving on difficult, rugged roads.
Related to the crowds, there are sanitation issues. While signage is up to remind people to Leave No Trace, there are no dumpsters or toilets in the area, something they hope can change. Stiles says part of this is due to the remoteness of the spot and part is a budget issue, “We probably are to the point now, although we have no money to do this, but we need a toilet up there. I mean, that’s the case in Shadow Mountain, that’s the case at Toppings and some other places. I mean there’s no vault toilets up there at all.”
The second issue for forest officials is campfires. With more sites popping up, more visitors mean an increased risk for wildfires. Wyoming is a state that deals with hundreds of wildfires a year so concerns for this issue are high.
“If you start getting your sites bigger and bigger, they tend to end up instead of one rock fire ring, now there might be two or three or four, and that gets pretty hard to manage,” says Stiles. “It gets to the point where you’re just kind of setting yourself up for more probability of getting an escaped campfire that could become a wildfire.”
There is no water source in the area, so visitors are expected to bring enough water for themselves as well as water to put out their campfire. Unfortunately, that’s not always done and forest officials and volunteers are often left to deal with still-smoldering fires.
The final major issue officials deal within Bridger-Teton is interactions with grizzly bears.
“It’s a critical habitat for grizzly bears which of course are a threatened species. And we have a lot of them,” says Stiles. “Fortunately, if people behave, like 99 times out of 100 the bears do too.”
Forest officials constantly remind visitors about bears in the area and campers are required to store their food properly. Stiles says something as simple as an empty candy wrapper or beer can attract a bear to a tent. Once a bear relates humans with food it can become a threat to other campers and, unfortunately, oftentimes the solution is to put the bear down to remove it from the population.
So far the new enforcement and measures taken in areas like Upper Teton View have been successful, but rangers and volunteers say they’re always making slight changes to deal with an ever-evolving situation. Stiles says those changes could be something as simple as putting down rocks or a log to show visitors where a campground ends.
He also says they plan to continue the roll-out of signs and communication with visitors in hopes of better educating campers in the area, “I truly believe when you have those personal interactions with people and they know you’re out there and you’re patrolling, and you convey a couple pretty basic things that are important for them to focus on, most people want to do the right thing,” says Stiles. “If they know what that is.”