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Report quantifies the 'camping crunch' on Western public lands

U.S. Forest Service

News brief

Camping on public lands in the West has skyrocketed in recent years, according to a new analysis from the conservation nonprofit Center for Western Priorities.

During 2020's peak season, 57% of all reservable campsites on federal lands in the West were occupied – an almost 18 percentage point increase compared to 2014. While the pandemic drove high turnouts last year, numbers were climbing even before that.

“Camping on America’s public lands is on an astronomical rise,” said Tyler McIntosh, conservation, policy and resource manager for the Center for Western Priorities.

He believes the data represents a shift in how people are thinking about the outdoors these days – they're seeking spaces beyond the country’s most popular national parks.

“They’re getting out on Forest Service land, they’re getting out on Army Corps of Engineer land, much more than they did in 2014,” he said.

McIntosh says this suggests the public has a greater appreciation for wild places. But it can also come with some downsides.

“There can certainly be negative impacts,” he said. “Whether that’s in terms of trash or the way [campers] are having a footprint on the landscape.”

The Center for Western Priorities produced the report by analyzing over 16 million campsite reservations over a six-year period. Montana, Idaho and Colorado saw some of the highest demand for reservable campsites in 2020. But Utah and Wyoming recorded some of the biggest gains in campsite occupancy since 2014.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Nate Hegyi is a roving regional reporter for the Mountain West News Bureau, based at Nevada Public Radio. You can reach him at natehegyi@protonmail.com.

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