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.
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.”
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.
“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.
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 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 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.”
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.”