February 26, 2022

More recreation, more conservation.

Fly Fishing

Ecotourism in land management.

Story by Alex Hargrave. Photography by Jessi Dodge.

Wyoming public lands have been inundated with tourists — many of whom have not spent their vacations recreating outdoors before — since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, according to Sara Evans-Kirol, Wyoming Leave No Trace state advocate and public affairs officer with Bighorn National Forest. Leave No Trace is a conservation concept and nonprofit organization that aims to minimize visitor impacts on the outdoors. 

The forest and its Cloud Peak Wilderness, where visitors are required to register before entry, saw a significant increase in visitation last year, according to previous Bulletin reporting. The forest’s 2020 annual report shows that every aspect of recreation was affected, especially campgrounds, which saw usage increase 35%, and this year is shaping up to be the same. 

The influx has led to disturbances in the Bighorn National Forest, such as dispersed camping on Grouse Mountain, trash left at campsites, unburied human waste and campfire concerns, many of which have been shared on social media by residents and noticed by Evans-Kirol. 

Silas Davidson, former acting Powder River District ranger, called the increased visitation over the past two years “a double-edged sword.”

“It’s awesome that people are out there and discovering the forest,” he said. “We just need to be able to find a way to keep that in a sustainable manner.”

Guides help with that, he said. These outfitters are issued priority-use permits from the U.S. Forest Service, Davidson said, that are conditional on their responsible use of the land. Each year, there are typically 20 priority-use permits on the forest. 

“The No. 1 thing I see outdoor guides doing for us is education,” Davidson said. “They are a mouthpiece for the Forest Service, they’re talking about leaving no trace, they’re talking about natural resource concerns and teaching people how to be good stewards of the land. And that’s what we’re really looking for in an outfitter guide.”

Outfitters, consciously or not, promote the practice of “ecotourism” in working with visitors, a travel principle aimed at conservation of natural resources. As visitation increases, so does the importance of conscious traveling and land management.

A study in Maine’s Acadia National Park conducted by Sisneros-Kidd and other researchers examined the effects of visitor education programs on the impacts from recreation. The study found that personal contact on trails was the most impactful way to change visitor behaviors. 

Unfortunately, as use of public lands increases, funding — and thus staffing — for these lands has remained stagnant. That’s where volunteers come in, Sisneros-Kidd said.

But volunteers aren’t the only people, other than agency employees, who are on the land. Again, cue outfitters and guides.

Dan Towsley, head fishing guide with Paradise Guest Ranch, works to conserve the waters on which he leads fishing trips and the trails they hike to get there. Last month, he led a group of four fly fishermen and -women down South Brush Creek Trail near Grouse Mountain. 

Towsley’s conservation philosophy is to lead by example. 

“I’ll be picking up trash when other people are leaving trash behind, and guests will see that,” he said. “Conservation is a big thing with me, personally, though a lot of other guides are that way.”

With warming temperatures and low streamflow's, Wyoming’s trout are stressed, according to previous Bulletin reporting. Towsley is conscious of this, passing best practices on to his clients, including Ed Clark, who was visiting with his wife, kids and friends from Rochester, Minnesota. 

With Towsley, anglers use barbless hooks, which are less physically traumatic to fish. He also advises them to wet their hands before they touch the trout they catch to avoid removing their protective layers of slime. After a quick photo and a triumphant show of success to friends, the trout goes back into the stream for the next lucky angler. 

“You can tell these guys love the resource and they want to protect it,” Clark said. “They want it to be here forever.” 

Agencies, advocates and guides work together to deliver the message of sustainable travel. Evans-Kirol said she often works with these individuals to implement Leave No Trace principles. Towsley said he was involved in the implementation of the state’s “WY responsibly” tourism campaign. 

These partnerships provide a consistent, palatable message for visitors, Sisneros-Kidd said, and it’s important to reach travelers with educational efforts before they’re in the backcountry without cell phone service. 

“Land management agencies, from the county level all the way up to national parks, utilize that platform to share a consistent message about this is how you’re supposed to behave, this is how you’re supposed to distance properly from people on trails,” she said. 

Visitors and residents coexist 

Buffalo’s relationship with tourism is complicated. Small businesses rely on it for most of their income, yet residents live here for quiet and solitude that is compromised by an influx of out-of-towners, according to Claudia Todd of Johnson County Tourism Association.

For Todd, there needs to be a balance. She said tourism in Buffalo needs to grow, but slowly so the town can handle the growth. 

“If you don’t have tourism, you don’t have anybody coming to town and then you have dying towns, so there is always the Catch-22,” she said. 

A recent example of such rapid growth can be found in Page, Arizona, near Horseshoe Bend, Sisneros-Kidd said. Visitors shared photos of the picturesque, horseshoe-shaped bend in the Colorado River on social media, and visitation soon skyrocketed. 

“Because it’s federally managed, they didn’t have the resources to divert to it immediately to deal with a huge influx of people that were coming there,” she said. “So that can be a big challenge.”

Throughout the summer months, visitors and residents coexist in Buffalo. Main Street is lined with out-of-state license plates, and restaurants are filled with families fresh off of a hike. 

Piper Singer, public relations and media manager for the Wyoming Office of Tourism, said the agency’s WY Responsibly campaign has resonated with visitors and residents alike.

“It goes both ways,” Singer said. “I think it’s about educating the tourists on being responsible travelers, and it’s also an educational piece for residents. I mean, this is their backyard. This is their playground just as much as it is for tourists, so we want to make sure they’re enjoying it, just as much as tourists do.”

And everyone can benefit from a refresher in Leave No Trace principles, Evans-Kirol said, in addition to the other aspects of ecotourism. 

“I feel that (ecotourism is) a special way to explore your world,” Evans-Kirol said. “It’s a way to learn a bit more in depth than you would normally.”

Originally published in the Buffalo Bulletin 9/9/2021.