Not long after the momentary thrill of hearing Wyoming’s state parks will be open to camping again, Jordan Webb put a petition online demanding the state reverse course.
At issue is not opening in general, it’s the state’s requirement that nearly all campsites require a reservation.
“They’re trying to take away what means a lot to many people,” Webb said. “It’s something that’s fun and easy to get away from all this. Normally there are areas to reserve but the majority of the spots are first come first serve. Once you pay for a park pass, or you buy the (annual) stickers, you’re good to go.”
She’s not alone. As of Friday morning, the Change.org petition had raised well over 26,000 signatures.
Webb understands the state is in a tricky position right now because of COVID-19, but she fears reservation-only will become the new normal for state parks.
State officials, however, say requiring reservations was the fastest way to open parks to camping during a global pandemic that has brought the world economy to a halt. Continuing it past this summer is a possibility, said state park’s deputy director Nick Neylon, and will be evaluated at the end of the season.
“Change is always difficult for folks,” Neylon said. “We thought it would be important to do everything we could to get folks out camping again.”
Campgrounds in neighboring states were some of the first places to be shut down to prevent worsening coronavirus outbreaks. But when Colorado closed its campgrounds, those eager campers flooded Wyoming.
Gov. Mark Gordon in turn closed Wyoming’s state parks to camping, and there the situation stayed. At an April 30 press conference, Gordon, along with State Parks and Cultural Resources director Darin Westby, announced that state parks would be open to camping for Wyoming residents on May 15. Except instead of about 40 percent of camp sites requiring a reservation like a normal year, about 95 percent will require one.
Neylon listed a handful of reasons including reducing the amount of cash exchanged between park staff members and the public, preventing out of state residents from camping and more easily keeping campers at safe distances. Not much will change for campers, he said.
Only Webb said it won’t be like it has been. The Moorcroft mother of three is used to packing up her kids and camping gear and heading to Keyhole State Park for weekends. Requiring an advance reservation will take away that freedom.
While campers could, theoretically, still drive to the campground, choose an empty site, then make the reservation over the phone or on the internet, it’s not always that simple, she said. The phone system is finicky, she said, and the online reservation system has glitches.
“We think it’s a complete overreach of power,” Webb said. “We should not have to reserve and ask for permission to go camping for the weekend.”
Fees, changes and reevaluations
Webb is not only concerned about being required to book a site online or over the phone, but that the service costs $7.75 for each reservation. That means even if a Wyoming resident paid $50 for an annual state parks camping permit, and $40 for an annual day use permit, the camper would need to pay an additional fee to the booking service, Reserve America.
Those fees are similar to surrounding states, Neylon said. Montana charges, $10, Idaho charges $8, North Dakota is $5.80 and South Dakota is $7.76. But he also sees the frustration for Wyoming residents, and said the state parks office is working with the online reservation system to see if they can lower the cost for residents.
While reservations will be required until Sept. 30, the end of the formal camping season, park officials plan to reevaluate the system for future years.
Permanently requiring reservations – outside of a pandemic year – has some bonuses, he said. It eliminates the need for fee collectors, which means adding more maintenance workers or park rangers. Statistics from Reserve America also show that nonresidents who make reservations typically stay longer and are more likely to come even if the weather turns ugly. And even though most state parks rarely fill up even on the weekend, reservations offer campers a level of certainty that showing up and hoping for the best does not. Reservations are not currently required, and likely will never be, at a scattering of remote areas like Hawk Springs State Park in southeastern Wyoming and the west side of Boysen Reservoir.
But for Webb and the tens of thousands who have signed the petition, permanently requiring reservations, and charging fees and cancellation fees, are just one more barrier to easy camping.
State parks officials are listening, Neylon said.
“It certainly got our attention,” he said of the petition. “We’re here to serve the people of Wyoming, and this is a good chunk of Wyoming speaking, so of course it means something.”
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