State Park camping proposal met with opposition

Dozens of area residents and frequent users of the Bear River State Park express their opposition to a proposal to add camping sites to the park, which is currently day-use only. (HERALD PHOTO/Sheila McGuire)

EVANSTON — A proposal to add 25 primitive tent camping sites to Bear River State Park met serious resistance on Monday, March 21, when a couple dozen people showed up to a public hearing on the proposal to express their opposition to the idea. Bear River State Park is currently a day-use only park for which no usage fees are charged, meaning the park itself generates no user revenue.

An informational flyer distributed at the March 21 hearing touted the economic development for the City of Evanston and the park itself; however, those in attendance were not swayed.

A brief opening presentation explained the proposal, which would consist of 25 designated primitive tent camping sites with a picnic table, garbage can and fire pit. Sites would be walk-in only, with no RVs or camp trailers allowed.

Three sites would be designated as ADA-friendly and located in the middle area of the park at existing picnic sites, while the other 22 would be located at the south end of the park. Camping season would run from May 15 through Sept. 15 of each year, with no camping allowed during the Bear River Mountain Man Rendezvous in August.

A daily camping fee would be charged, with a maximum stay of 14 consecutive days. A volunteer camp host would be located on-site to help ensure camping rules and regulations are followed and to help with maintenance and answering questions.

Park superintendent Tyfani Sager explained the sites would be located primarily in the existing rendezvous area and would be designed to ensure a minimal “footprint” and protect area wildlife.

Following the presentation, members of the public were able to ask questions or present their opinions, during which it became clear the vast majority of those in attendance were opposed to the proposed project. Residents shared their love for the park and the walking trails that have been utilized by locals for decades. One man said he opposes the idea because he doesn’t want to see port-a-potties scattered around the grounds or people “crawling bare-assed out of tents” in the morning and “going” in the bushes because they’re “too lazy” to walk to existing bathrooms.

Others questioned if the motivation behind the proposal is simply revenue generation and wondered if any revenues raised through camping would be designated strictly for Bear River State Park. Kyle Bernis, manager of the Shoshone District of the Wyoming Division of State Parks, Historic Sites and Trails, explained the monies raised would be returned to the state’s general fund and not specifically to BRSP.

Another Evanston resident said the proposal would be a “huge encroachment” on existing day use, stating there is already not enough parking and not enough picnic sites available on busy days. She said designating three of those picnic sites as ADA camping sites, “probably the prime spots,” would cut down on availability even more.

She said she worried the addition of camping at the park would have a negative impact on the huge variety of wildlife that can regularly be seen in the park. “This would be taking it all and basically devastating it overnight,” she said, to which Bernis explained the Division of State Parks would be working closely with Wyoming Game and Fish to protect wildlife. The resident also expressed concerns that allowing camping in the park would create problems like those found in other states wherein the campgrounds “basically become homeless camps.”

Still others in attendance asked how RVs and camp trailers would be kept out and insisted campers already had options in local RV parks, asking whether the park should be “competing” with local businesses or taking revenue away from area hotels. One woman explained that she frequents the park regularly and has already seen people relieving themselves in bushes and having paintball fights and has called emergency crews to respond to fires and a near drowning. She said she was concerned such incidents would only increase if camping were allowed. She also mentioned the students that visit the park on school trips and wondered how camping would impact such visits.

In response to concerns about emergency calls and improper behavior by campers, Bernis explained a camp host would be monitoring for such things and said the state already plans to add a park ranger office in the area to handle law enforcement needs.

One gentleman was obviously emotional about the proposal. “Those of us who walk the park every day already monitor it,” he said. “We celebrate animal births and mourn deaths. Why are people from hundreds of miles away telling us what to do to fix the park? We’re not broken.” He then turned to the rest of the audience and asked for a show of hands as to who was in favor of the proposal — not a single hand went up.

Evanston resident Gary Welling asked about the likelihood of charging day use fees to raise revenue as opposed to focusing only on the camping proposal. Sager said many parks throughout the state do charge day use fees, including an annual pass for residents who use the park regularly.

As for funds that do go directly to the Bear River State Park, Sager said, the best way to ensure that is for people to donate directly to the park through donation receptacles in the visitor center or through donations to the recently formed Friends of the Bear River State Park group.

Evanston Mayor Kent Williams rose to say he’s uncertain as to how he feels about the proposal but attended the meeting to ask questions.

“My main concern is whether people will continue to feel safe at the park,” he said. He also wondered about duties that would be added to those of local law enforcement agencies if they were receiving additional calls to handle situations at the park. “I understand the need to raise revenue,” he said, noting that local government agencies are also grappling with that problem. He asked further, “Who are you targeting with this proposal and how will that impact our citizens?”

Williams continued, “You have big questions to answer, and I hope you give them lots of thought.”

As the meeting came to a close, another gentleman expressed his belief that the decision had already been made. “This is a done deal, isn’t it?”

Bernis insisted that was not the case and said the meeting had been recorded and he would be sharing the concerns and opposition of those in attendance with decision makers at the state.

“This meeting wouldn’t be happening if it was the case this was already decided,” he said.

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