Travel Recreation

More recreation, more conservation | Local News

Bomber Mountain, left, and Cloud Peak, center, overlook Cloud Peak Lake

Bomber Mountain, left, and Cloud Peak, center, overlook Cloud Peak Lake in the wilderness. The Bighorn National Forest and Cloud Peak Wilderness draw a large number of local and non-local visitors in for recreation. Local guides and tourism operators like guest ranches allow newcomers access to the natural resources in responsible and safe ways.

Adam Todd earns his living during the summer months in Buffalo, guiding tourists from near and far on horseback through the Bighorn National Forest.

For travelers, a miles-long trek ends at a seasonal, semipermanent camp, outfitted with a functional kitchen and bathroom, where guests embark on fishing excursions on lakes that are otherwise difficult for the average recreationist to access. 

Bringing people to places they never imagined is why Todd moved back to Buffalo from North Dakota, where he sold insurance, and purchased Black Tooth Excursions from its previous owners. In Todd’s words, he and his employees “try to sell fun.”

He tells stories about his favorite moments, like that of a fisherman who tried to hike to a lake high up in the Bighorns multiple times on his own, only to finally get there on one of Todd’s excursions.

“Just before we got to the lake, he asked me if I would bury his ashes up there,” Todd said. “When we got to the lake, everybody stepped back, let him rig up his fishing rod. First cast, he caught about a two-and-a-half-pound cutthroat (trout). There wasn’t a dry eye in the place. That’s something that means more to me (than anything), to be able to give that opportunity to somebody.”

The term that can be applied to Todd’s and other local guides’ brand of outdoor recreation is “ecotourism,” a travel practice aimed at conservation of the natural lands that tourists explore and good stewardship in the communities they are visiting. 

When out-of-towners travel with Todd, who has decades of experience recreating on public lands, he can “lead by example,” by picking up trash and ensuring that trails and other natural resources remain intact.

Justin Mitchell, left, checks to see if they can help pack their bags

Justin Mitchell, left, checks to see if they can help pack their bags while his three siblings, from left, James, Jonathan and Julie wait for instruction at the Hunter Trail parking lot. The four siblings get together each year for a fishing trip and after recently watching City Slickers decided they wanted to try a horseback trip for this year’s vacation.

Tim Peterson leads a string of mules and the Mitchell siblings

Tim Peterson leads a string of mules and the Mitchell siblings across a creek and up through park as they continue their ride into the wilderness in mid-July. Guests are provided with horses to ride up away from the parking lot to their camping location. The Mitchell’s camped near Cloud Peak Lake for a long weekend.

Steve Packard picks up a couple of saddle pads

Steve Packard picks up a couple of saddle pads as he find the next horse to saddle before the morning ride to take a group of fishermen back down the mountain. The Flatiron Lake Camp is packed in and set up in mid-June depending on snowpack and will come out around Labor Day weekend so as to avoid early snowfall. Packard is one of several Johnson County locals to help out Adam Todd and Black Tooth Excursions over the summers.

As a permittee of the forest, Todd said that his guests’ behavior is his responsibility. If he leaves behind waste or disturbs the wilderness, the forest reserves the right to revoke his permit, meaning there is more at stake for him than for a one-time traveler from thousands of miles away. 

Todd also said he ensures that his work benefits the town of Buffalo, whose residents ultimately feel the effects of tourism, good and bad. 

“I try to buy local when I can, so the money I make stays in the community,” he said. “I use our local sporting goods stores; I use our local feed stores, local grocery stores.”

Conscientious tourism 

The Bighorn National Forest’s notoriety and visitor numbers pale in comparison to Yellowstone National Park on the other side of the state, where officials say 1 million people visited in July. Still, travelers seek out the Bighorns from near and far. Todd said the absence of grizzly bears in the area and the beautiful landscapes attract his typical clients, who range from families to groups of friends or couples. 

Claudia Todd, Adam’s wife and a member of Johnson County Tourism Association, said outdoor recreation is a big part of the county’s overall tourism industry. 

“People come here to play,” she said.

According to data from the Wyoming Department of Administration and Information, leisure and hospitality industries make up 16.3% of employment in Johnson County, second highest behind local government. More than 11% of 4% sales and use tax collections are derived from the industry locally.

Statewide, tourism is the second-largest industry, according to the Wyoming Office of Tourism. This summer and last, the office initiated a “WY responsibly” campaign that encourages visitors to be stewards of natural lands and communities. 

Piper Singer, public relations and media manager for the Office of Tourism, said the campaign was created as a source of travel information as outdoor recreation increased during the coronavirus pandemic. This year, as that increase in outdoor recreation continues, the campaign has evolved into an educational program about responsible tourism.

Guests Rod Riley, Mark Weiler, Dan Speed and Gene Tice sit down to pray

Guests Rod Riley, Mark Weiler, Dan Speed and Gene Tice sit down to pray with Adam Todd, right, Tim Peterson, center, and Steve Packard joining in before starting dinner. This was the group’s last night in camp and dinner included salad, beef stroganoff and a cobbler for desert.

Adam Todd’s Flatiron Lake Camp is a semipermanent camp

Adam Todd’s Flatiron Lake Camp is a semipermanent camp, set up in mid-June and pulled out in early September before the snowfall gets too heavy. The same is true of his second Gem Lake camp and involves the help of several friends and community members to get everything working. The Flatiron camp includes a cook tent, dining tent, bathroom, and several sleeping tents to accommodate up to 10 guests.

“We want it to be that source of information and to educate and facilitate mindful stewards of the land, wildlife and community,” Singer said. “(That includes) shopping local, eating local and being really immersed in the community and culture when you are traveling.”

Abby Sisneros-Kidd, assistant professor of outdoor recreation and tourism management at the University of Wyoming, studies the interaction between humans and the environment. For the researcher, she said, ecotourism typically refers to foreign travel, though the term can apply to remote places and small communities such as those throughout Wyoming. 

When it comes to community stewardship, Sisneros-Kidd said, guides and outfitters who lead travelers on trips such as climbing, fishing, hiking and horseback expeditions are contributors. 

“A lot of the time, part of the guiding experience and what guides are taught is to provide some interpretation, some background, some information to their clients as they’re out there recreating,” she said. 

Adam Todd, who operates the fishing camp, said that during his days with travelers, he imparts local history, along with information on local industry and agriculture. 

Singer said almost every county has local guides, whom the state tourism office works with closely to understand what products they bring to their region.

Brad Burns, a graduate of Buffalo High School, is one of those guides eager to share his home with travelers. A climbing guide with Bighorn Mountain Guides, Burns leads climbing trips in the mountains in Johnson and Sheridan counties. Burns said that a typical trip brings beginner climbers to an easy route where guides instruct them on how to climb an easy route and then determine whether they’re ready to move on to a more challenging course. 

Brad Burns, left, explains the rope system

Brad Burns, left, explains the rope system and how it works before setting up the lines for visitor Arvil Nagpal along the Piney Creek Trail in Story in late July. Nagpal and his girlfriend work remotely and travel a lot and so in his free time he tries to work with local guides in different locations to try different sports and activities like rock climbing.

Climbing in the Bighorns has been a source of controversy in the past few years, as routes in Tensleep Canyon become more popular and climbers damage rock faces, according to previous Bulletin reporting. As a guide, Burns can teach good habits and practices, in and around the mountains. 

“We can point out cool things in the area, name mountains, things like that,” he said. “If you ask us, as people outside of rock climbing, what the best bars in town are and things like that, you can also get kind of that local flavor from us.”

As locals, guides and outfitters have a vested interest in promoting responsible tourism. Plus, they want to share their community and natural resources with others. For Adam Todd, that brings up a recent memory of a 10-year-old boy from Los Angeles who caught his first fish on  one of his trips. 

“To be able to take what we do, what we take for granted because we grew up here, and extend it to them, those are some of the things we’re passionate about,” he said.

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 climbers were able to make their scheduled morning trip

Despite hanging clouds and the occasional raindrop, the climbers were able to make their scheduled morning trip happen. Guide Brad Burns hooked himself in and once safely secured looked down to Arvil Nagpal to have the rope released. From here Burns could set up the rope for Nagpal to climb. This same process was repeated on the subsequent climbing paths with Burns making the first trip up and then Nagpal practicing on the set path.

Arvil Nagpal looks up to the top of the rock

Arvil Nagpal looks up to the top of the rock he climbed after returning back to the ground in excitement for making it all the way. Nagpal had climbed some in a gym but hadn’t done any outdoor climbing and so working with a guide was an exciting way to find the best spots and safely get some experience outside.

Brad Burns, left, sits his weight back in the harness

Brad Burns, left, sits his weight back in the harness to keep the rope tight while guest climber Arvil Nagpal begins his ascent up the rock face. Rock climbing is rated on a scale of difficulty and having a local guide who is familiar with the climb difficulties allows guests to begin at the correct level and move up in difficulty as time and skill allow.

Brad Burns chalks up his hands before beginning his climb

Brad Burns chalks up his hands before beginning his climb up the first rock face they would be climbing for the day. Burns is a local to the area and works as a guide in the mountains when he is home from college in the summers.

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. 

Dan Towsley, right, grabs his bag and supplies

Dan Towsley, right, grabs his bag and supplies from the car after fixing up all the guests fly rods during a half day trip in late July on Grouse Mountain. Visiting from out of state, family friends Ed and Mary Clark, left, and Debbie and Chris Baum have been coming to Paradise Guest Ranch for several years and try to fish.

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 streamflows, 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.” 

Dan Towsley ties a fly for one of the guests

Dan Towsley ties a fly for one of the guests while some guests change shoes to cross the creek. Towsley took the group of fishermen farther down the creek than most people fish – both for better fishing and to not overfish the easy access part of the creek.

Mary Clark steps over around a corner

Mary Clark steps over around a corner with the help of Dan Towsley as the two couples work their way farther down the creek. They moved along the bank until they reached the fishing area and from their fished in the river and walked up stream when moving.

Mary Clark holds up her first fish of the day for a photo

Mary Clark holds up her first fish of the day for a photo. Part of the guided fishing job is educating people about how to safely handle the fish and take care of the resources and wildlife they are interacting with, according to Towsley. He reminded this group of fishermen to wet their hands full before touching their fish to prevent stress or damage. Local guides who know how best to protect resources have the opportunity to help visitors safely and respectfully use those same resources.

Guides at guest ranches like the Paradise Guest Ranch

Guides at guest ranches like the Paradise Guest Ranch lead fishing trips both on the guest ranches and off, helping spread guests out at different fishing locations in the Bighorns. Dan Towsley has been working at Paradise for several years as a fishing guide in the region.

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. 

Adam Todd, right, rubs the head of his dog Bella

Adam Todd, right, rubs the head of his dog Bella while holding the pack rope tight for friend Tim Peterson as they pack one of the mules. Todd, owner of Black Tooth Excursions, bought the business with his wife Claudia almost five years ago but started working with the outfitting business several years before that.

Tim Peterson returns to the trailer after tying

Tim Peterson returns to the trailer after tying up a packed mule at the Hunter Trail parking lot. Tim works as a taxidermist in Kaycee but helps with the camps as much as he can. Peterson originally found the Bighorns because of a hunting trip he came on here when he still lived in Minnesota.

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.”

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