An Update on Dispersed Camping in Arizona’s Prescott National Forest

Apr 13, 2022 | Conservation, News

An Update on Dispersed Camping in Arizona’s Prescott National Forest

By Alex Murphy

Almost 2 years after changes to a Northern Arizona national forest, park rangers are seeing improvements to a previously overcrowded area. The Verde District of Prescott National Forest had experienced a spike of transient campers making the forest their permanent home, and with that came an increase in crime. 

In 2020, recreation leaders enacted a temporary camping ban in the area to remove the permanent campers and make it a safer place for visitors. There’s currently a second temporary camping ban in place in the area, set to expire in January 2023.

Vegetation growing in Arizona national forest
The Thousand Trails Area in Prescott National Forest with broom snakeweed and annual herbaceous vegetation growing in the recovery areas. | Photo courtesy of Prescott National Forest

Now officials are working on an action plan, called the Verde Recreation Action Plan (VRAP), to better serve the growing outdoor recreation community. Prescott National Forest officials say that they’ve received mostly positive feedback.

“When we’re out making the rounds, the rangers come in contact with people who are now enjoying the area … walking their dogs and doing the usual day-use activities out there,” says Tom Palmer, the East Zone recreation program manager.  

The National Forest Service is reviewing public comment for the VRAP, which will overhaul the entire Verde District area. Officials say the response has been slow, so they’re taking time to make sure that everyone who uses the public land has time to share feedback. 

The VRAP is part of an environmental assessment to help officials better manage the property and protect the natural resources in the area, including river access, road and trail improvement, and camping. The plan’s goal is to restore areas damaged by overuse by regrowing vegetation and removing trash. This will allow the land, such as the now-closed camping area near Highway 60, to once again operate for day use. 

Dirt road in Arizona national forest with boulders lining roadway
Larger overstory vegetation has yet to return and likely will not for some time, according to a forest program manager. | Photo courtesy of Prescott National Forest

Part of the VRAP focuses specifically on dispersed camping areas, like the overcrowded area that hit a breaking point 2 years ago. Since the temporary camping bans were implemented, officials say they’ve seen improvements both in the number of illegal campers and environmental impacts. Part of the restoration efforts includes regrowing native plants that help with flood mitigation. 

“I’m impressed with some of the recovery out there, even with the soil compaction from years of vehicles using the roads, but it’s on the mend,” says Verde District Ranger Todd Willard. 

The plan doesn’t allow camping in the now-closed area, but there are plenty of other designated spots for camping in the national forest. The Verde District alone has popular campgrounds like Mingus Mountain and Potato Patch. Campendium lists at least 90 other places for those looking to camp around the Prescott National Forest area. 

Person hanging in hammock at camping in dispersed camping area
Mingus Mountain Campground, an alternative camping option in Prescott National Forest. | Photo by: Tardis

Once the assessment is complete, Palmer and his team hope to see the new rules and guidelines in place at the end of this year, or by early 2023. If there is a lapse between the temporary camping ban expiration and a signed decision on the VRAD, officials say they would likely pursue a third temporary closure of the current area if needed to bridge any timing gaps.

While there’s still a problem of illegal dumping and the occasional attempted camper, officials are happy with the progress. Willard, who once described the area as “an abandoned used car lot,” says recent actions are helping to restore the area.

He says they still perform frequent patrols of the area and that they’ve seen about a dozen people disobeying the camping ban over the past few months. “But generally, the compliance has been good,” he says.

You can view an updated look at the camping closures in Prescott National Forest here. Public commenting has closed, but you can still fill out a feedback form and send it to forest officials.