Cowboy State outback took a beating during summer


Wyoming’s gigantic back yard — its national forests and wilderness areas — took a mighty beating this summer as Americans tried to escape from urban areas and get away from the scourge of the COVID-19 virus.

From one end of Wyoming to the other, campgrounds, isolated trails, and hidden lake areas were discovered by a new kind of visitor.  These were folks desperate to find pristine mountain places away from the dreaded virus that has claimed over 200,000 people in the USA since March. They wanted open air where they could breathe without masks and could socially interact with their families without worrying about getting sick. They were looking for Wyoming’s famed Outback.

My friend Jim Hicks in Buffalo said he heard local reports that the campgrounds and restroom areas in his Big Horn Mountains were littered with human droppings, toilet tissue, and miscellaneous junk left by people not used to showing respect for the back country. 

He said you look up at the mountains and see camper trailers and pickups in places you have never seen people parking before. It must have been crowded.

Some 200 miles to the southwest, the obscure backcountry trail head at Big Sandy, east of Pinedale, had its parking lot filled with 400 vehicles on the last weekend in August, according to noted photographer Dave Bell.

Bell said he counted 300 vehicles at the Elkhart Park trailhead lot at the same time.

He said: “It’s been quite a summer.  Never seen anything like it. Reports are all major trailheads were like this — Green River Lakes, Spring Creek Park, Scab Creek plus the two mentioned earlier.” 

Bell also lamented: “And now with the incredible blowdown which occurred, the trails are in very bad shape with downed timber. It looks like pick-up-sticks.” 

My daughter Shelli Johnson, who roams the Wind River Mountains all summer, remarked on the numbers of people in formerly empty areas plus increased amounts of litter, which just was not seen in previous years.

Former longtime Fremont County Sheriff Skip Hornecker said: “I experienced the same thing while riding for cows up the Popo Agie River. It was very common to run across two to three groups of backpackers each day. Unfortunately, it appeared that some were not prepared for the adventure they were on. The early September snow storm caught several unprepared and the Sheriff’s Office had over seven rescue situations as a consequence.”

Mountain Journal founder and columnist Todd Wilkinson wrote: “At Forest Service campgrounds near Jackson, piles of human waste and toilet paper were ubiquitous and so was litter. The smelly messes were spread throughout an area in the middle of public land frequented by bears, including at times the famous Jackson Hole Grizzly 399 and her cubs.

“When talking with managers of state and federal public lands these pandemic days, two issues popped up: what to do about large amounts of human feces deposited in wild places and how to handle far too many visitors,” he continued. “Both issues have served as a wake-up call to both land managers and environmentalists about the downsides of recreation.”

Let’s hope this summer was an exception. If these folks liked what they experienced and plan to come back, then we need to educate them.

Facts show that tourists did come to Wyoming in near-record numbers, which was a shock. The season started slowly because of the COVID-19 epidemic but then about July 4, the floodgates opened and they came to Wyoming from all directions.

Yellowstone National Park had its second largest August visitation ever, which is truly remarkable because of the lack of Asian tourists. In recent years, the park has been flooded by Chinese, Indian, Japanese and other Asian folks.

And yet, the park visitation numbers soared.

These were Americans escaping the bondage of social distancing and strict laws concerning social gathering and travel.

Besides the folks visiting the main tourist attractions, the number who wanted to escape to the hills was an all-time record, too.  Records were set at campgrounds all across the state. It was hard to find a camping spot without a reservation.

This would have been a great summer to sell an RV. Companies that rent motorhomes and campers were sold out.

We love tourism. It is our No. 2 industry and certainly the brightest spot in the Wyoming economy going forward, virus or not. But perhaps we need to somehow let our visitors know that just because they are out in the wide-open spaces, it does not give them the right to practice bad habits.

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