Eastern Sierra Dispersed Camping Summit: Dealing with The Hordes

Dispersed camping can be bad for environment

The Eastern Sierra was ill prepared for the waves of Southern Californians literally heading for the hills during last summer’s COVID-19 restrictions and fears. Despite the stay-at-home orders, they escaped to an area assumed to be germ-free and serene, found area campgrounds closed, pitched their tents wherever and left a mess behind them. The excuse for the bad-behavior was a charitable “they didn’t know how to behave.”



Bob Gardner

So, Mono County Supervisor Bob Gardner held an “Eastern Sierra Dispersed Camping Summit” last week, to figure out a way to prevent the carnage again this year by turning new visitors into responsible stewards of the land.

Paul McFarland with the DeChambeau Creek Foundation led the 51 Zoom attendees through the process, outlining key areas of concentration. Those topics, all staffed with volunteers by the end of the summit, were education, mapping, stewardship, infrastructure and enforcement.

The five groups will come back to the next zoom meeting, March 25, with the results of their brainstorming.

“We’re not here to bemoan the impacts,” he said. “We’re here to focus on our ability to control and change, to work through the challenges.”

He illustrated that challenge with one stark statistic: the sale of RV sales jumped by 47-percent last year. And they all drove up U.S. Highway 395, or so it seemed.

BLM Campground

The nature of land management on the Eastside doesn’t help. Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service own land in Inyo County, in ascending order. The mix of ownership is a little different in Mono, but no less confusing. And, the areas travelers choose to disperse camp on seem to be focused on Mammoth Lakes, the Alabama Hills and the Buttermilks, according to McFarland—all with their own set of regulations.


Social media culprit for bad information

A primary spreader of bad information is the web, Instagram and other apps that give people their five minutes of fame. A challenge will be to make good behavior look as much fun as bad behavior.

The following are some of the suggestions from participants.

  • Set a $10 to $12 charge per night for campgrounds, a price people would be willing to pay for that luxury.
  • Develop real time campground information, what’s available and where, to encourage the use of developed sites and direct campers to those sites.
  • Education and dissemination of information and regulations is key. The Inyo National Forest is exploring more dispersed camping restrictions that may be in place by this summer. So, how does the INF make those restrictions known to those who didn’t comply with last summer’s restrictions?
  • Signage at high impact areas will be key as will more dump stations and information as to their location.
  • One attendee wanted tourism promotion to stop, but didn’t get too much agreement since tourism is the primary industry on the East side. Mammoth Lakes Tourism launched a campaign to recreate responsibly that got good traction last summer.
  • Stewardship groups like Range of Light, Friends of the Inyo were in attendance and filled in a lot of the blanks as project heads. McFarland suggested local Fire Safe Councils as another source of stewardship as well as the now-famous Trash Eliminators.
  • Mono Sheriff Ingrid Braun brought up another complication: there are limits as to what regulations her deputies can enforce. Her example was leash laws in Mammoth. “We can enforce with words,” she said, but words don’t always work.
  • Braun also suggested permits for dispersed camping as a way to educate at the source. One down-side was the cost of manpower at the permit sites.
  • Mammoth Town Councilmember and mastermind behind the Eastern Sierra Sustainable Recreation Partnership pointed out his focus was identifying projects and going after grant funding for those projects. That program could easily mesh with the efforts of the Summit.

, , ,

31 Responses to Eastern Sierra Dispersed Camping Summit: Dealing with The Hordes

  1. P. Roach February 19, 2021 at 9:31 pm #

    Yes, agree…it’s time for action. I suggest re-opening all campgrounds and visitor centers for starters. Could it be that closing these places down forced people to disperse camp far more than normal? Asking for a friend.

    • Rich February 22, 2021 at 10:35 am #

      The USFS closing campgrounds due to covid is every bit as stupid as the MASK ZONE sign at the top of Mammoth Mountain.

      They dispersed camped because of campground closures. Now dispersed camping will continue ten fold as they have found dispersed camping more enjoyable the camping where they must pay a ridiculous fee

  2. Dan Chirpich February 17, 2021 at 5:19 pm #

    Lotta harsh people taking a negative reinforcement approach with enforcement. I’m as angry as any at people being poor stewards, but I’m not quick to jump on the enforcement bandwagon. Negative reinforcement isn’t going to make apathetic individuals suddenly care more. Perhaps enforcement is valid for fires given the potential consequences, but otherwise negative reinforcement seems more likely to breed resentment.

    Anything that promotes understanding and stewardship is another approach. I personally pick up trash on a very regular basis, including a disgusting amount of used TP. Just keep a spare bag with you in your car and put your hand in it to pick TP up like anyone does with dog poo, or use a stick to pick it up. I pickup bullet shells and cheap beer cans/bottles on almost every run I do in the desert. At times I’ll carry more than one can or bottle for miles on my run. I at times share that I do this hoping to encourage others to consider picking up just one thing every time they’re out. It’s just one thing. If everyone did that, we’d have a lot less trash. Simply verbalizing this (or making a billboard about it) brings the thought to others’ conscious and contributes toward a more positive culture. That’s my approach. I doubt it creates any resentment or manifests negativity like approaches fueled by anger or negative reinforcement might.

    • Charles O. Jones February 18, 2021 at 9:57 am #

      You’re focusing on the negative. Enforcement doesn’t have to be negative. It can be delivered in an educational form to gain voluntary compliance. Law enforcement folks do this all the time with other issues. Stricter enforcement measures should be reserved for the uncooperative or the repeat offenders. Bottom line though, without enforcement, compliance will be marginal at best.

    • Tinner February 18, 2021 at 7:37 pm #

      Dan Chirpich, nice thought but your approach isn’t very proactive, a complete and total pipe dream really. You’re not going to get many people to pick up trash that isn’t already picking up trash.
      For many, picking up after themselves is too much of an inconvenience, many count on people like you to pick up their trash, too many others just don’t care if somebody picks it up or not.
      In all fairness if everybody was like you and me and so many others, our open spaces would be spotless, but that’s not our reality.

  3. INYOFACE February 17, 2021 at 11:01 am #

    Why not Close Down INYO County Completely ! Other than Travel back and fourth from Mexico for your House Maids and Gardeners , After all , What is More Important , The Hordes of SoCal Residents looking for a place to spend all of their Money ! Or your Ability to get Your Oat&Apple Muffin From Schats Bakery in under a minute on a Friday Morning ?

  4. sugarmags February 17, 2021 at 9:29 am #

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m a Braun supporter, but the leash law comment is pretty off point. We literally were dealing with a massive human poop problem last summer. Human poop, trash, and most importantly, fire danger, are what we need the sheriff’s office to address. Obviously the USFS needs to step up majorly too. They seem to focus more on backcountry users who seem to be much more experienced users and less of a fire risk than the new RVers. USFS needs to focus their efforts on these campers with citations for illegal fires!!!

    • Laura’s February 17, 2021 at 5:22 pm #

      Sugarmahs I completely agree with you on all your words, remember there is over 3,000 square miles, 3,000+ in Mono County. USFS does not have the funds to hire 10 to 15 people to do enforcement on FS land in Mono County. We NEED 24 hours of enforcement for dispersed camping maybe more the 15 to 20, if we don’t have enforcement we cannot have dispersed camping. Illegal campfire happen after 8am-5pm, hence why we need 24 hours of enforcement!

      • sugarmags February 19, 2021 at 10:16 am #

        the majority of the dispersed campers stay in a small portion of the forest. We don’t actually need to police the whole 3000 plus acres.

  5. sugarmags February 17, 2021 at 9:25 am #

    Currently Americans are so limited on recreational activities, that we are in for another massive intrusion this summer. To use taxpayer money to advertise for more tourists during this time where we are inundated, is utterly ridiculous. We are already going to be above our carrying capacity, stop the taxpayer funded advertising!!!!

  6. Russ Monroe February 17, 2021 at 8:49 am #

    Education is not the end all answer to this disaster. The complete absence of enforcement overrides all other pionts. It boils down to money; specifically payroll. None of the five enforcement agencies has enough people on the payroll to enforce anything. “Closing” campgrounds forced travelers to disperse and payroll sitting in a cubicle in Bishop cannot enforce anything in French Spring canyon.
    The open highway combined with the internet is a set of facts that we get to learn to deal with. So far, all agencies have failed to adapt. Volunteerism is great! But the same problems will continue regardless of all of the volunteers because tourists outnumber the volunteers several times over.
    Passing more laws and regulations without the payroll to enforce them is a waste of time and resources. The feds spend millions of dollars every year to invite visitors from all over the planet to come here, the feds have to be held accountable by putting up the cash to cover the cost of their success!

  7. Laurel M February 17, 2021 at 5:07 am #

    Lots of states in the US DONT EVEN ALLOW CAMPFIRES anymore due to drought conditions! I was told from a Forest Service personal, that the tourist want campfires! Well fire restrictions don’t work, never have. Wake up Mono county since we allow campfire we will become another Paradise, California. Not a matter of if it’s when! Ban all CAMPFIRES IN MONO COUNTY even in developed campgrounds!

    • Sierra H February 19, 2021 at 5:02 pm #

      Come on Mono County you give $10,000 plus for COVID relief to 1 restaurant you promote tourism, you can and should provided money for enforcement 24 HOURS of ENFORCEMENT for dispersed camping. If town burns down……..no tourism. No restaurants no anything. Let’s get a dozen people for enforcement. No volunteers, and not 3 enforcement officers 8-5. We can do better because with social medial it will only get worse. Action should of been done 5 years ago.

  8. Stop all fire wood sales February 16, 2021 at 7:23 pm #

    How about banning all campfires and all fire wood sales and inspection to make sure no one has fire wood.

  9. Tinner February 16, 2021 at 6:09 pm #

    The challenge seems to be getting educational information to our visitors. Too many people won’t take the time to educated themselves unless they know they can face a heavy penalty. Signage up and down much of 395 stating fines so huge that it makes national news and papers, that is going to be the most efficient way to get attention to this problem, IF we are serious about fixing this problem and threat to the our open spaces.
    If we’re lucky that would bring national media to our area to ask questions which is another opportunity to educate the public.
    Some may feel heavy fines would stop people from coming to the eastside, maybe, maybe not.
    If so, I think we can afford to lose a few to improve the cleanliness and quality for the rest. But let’s face it, crowds are increasing ever year it seems, and not too many people are gonna stop coming here because this area, there’s too much here to go elsewhere.
    My opinion is that crowds have outgrown the town, our visitors on occasion have become too much of a good thing it’s hard to enjoy days off at times.
    That’s my two cents.

    • Robert February 16, 2021 at 6:57 pm #

      25 million people within a days drive

    • Stop non-essential travel February 17, 2021 at 8:23 am #

      Totally Agree. Billboards with strong messaging. Press Releases from Inyo and Mono County Supervisors to SoCal and National News Sources speaking to the problem and indicating fines, strong penalties, etc. Let them know we’re all watching and will be reporting. Unfortunately, Smokey the Bear and Woodsy the Owl need to retire.

      • Sierra Lady February 17, 2021 at 11:02 am #

        Billboards are not the answer, plus they will never happen due to the 395 Scenic Byway designation (thank goodness…they would ruin the viewshed). People don’t read them anyway as they are driving way too fast! As others have stated, enforcement is the key.

  10. gungadin2 February 16, 2021 at 4:38 pm #

    Really nice to see Mono getting to ready get trampled on again. Where were our leaders last season?? They live here and just watch it get trampled & trashed all season. Nice for Bob to have this, but I wish more people new about it before hand and actually relevant organizations such the Alabama Hills Stewardship committee were asked to participate. As one of the most trampled and trashed places in the eastern sierra it would have been nice for Bob and our neighbors to include us. I like this, but the disorganization stinks a bit. DM is right, we enforcement! Enforcement is key! I cannot agree enough. We need to hold the local agencies accountable as well as the visitors. Thank you to all the trash pickers, it feels like a never ending battle but it keeps our beautiful home clean. We cannot have another season like last year.

  11. DM February 16, 2021 at 3:53 pm #

    Mono County has 3,030 square miles, or just over 2 MILLION ACRES. Even if you hire 5 law enforcement people that is NO WHERE near enough to cover all that space for dispersed camping. LETS DO IT RIGHT!,15 to 20 is not hard to ask, and not just 8am to 5pm. 24 HOURS A DAY. NO MATTER THE COST. If our towns burns down (from a campfire that gets out of control, winds speeds have increased tremendously in the last 5 years as well as drought and warmer weather conditions) that will be BILLIONS in dollars lost, not to mention the other 100,000 + millions billions in 10 years. Tourism, houses, jobs…..decades to recover losses. Let’s do it right in 2021. NO EXCUSES. WE CAN DO THIS! We need to be proactive NOW be for it’s to late.

    How about also moving dispersed camping 20 to 30 miles from the nearest town……so when a fire does break out resources can have time to “try” to protect the towns? NO BRAINER THERE. With pressure the government can MAKE change, as we well know in 2020 with the Creek Fire and Covid 19.

    • DM February 16, 2021 at 5:59 pm #

      Mono County has been UNDERSERVED since the airport lawsuit. Let’s put money into protecting Mono County environment.

  12. Harold February 16, 2021 at 12:31 pm #

    How about signage along 395 saying NO DISPERSED CAMPING

  13. Charles O. Jones February 16, 2021 at 11:28 am #

    This past summer was a big problem. I saw virtually zero enforcement for illegal camping. And without enforcement there’s little incentive for rogue camper to follow the rules.

  14. Marc Fathauer February 16, 2021 at 9:39 am #

    Perhaps there would be a way to publish online photo reports of offenders as well as those who excel in leave-no-trace. Nothing like public humiliations and/or rewards/kudos to stir up the pot. Reward peeps who take before and after photos of their sites and post them. Is there any budget for sending out photo drones to detect and capture unlawful campfires? Infrared cameras could easily pinpoint campfires.

    • Stop non-essential travel February 16, 2021 at 1:10 pm #

      “Wilderness Collective” – “Wilderness Makes you Better” – this group of @ 10 dirt-bikers camped illegally in the Buttermilks on USFS land (the pit, at the corner of Starlite Drive and Buttermilk Road), within 1/4 mile of Starlite, with an illegal campfire, Dec 3-5, 2020. Accessed the area through Starlite multiple times, on their not-so-quiet dirt-bikes, at high speed. So, not only illegal dispersed camping, but illegal campfires and making money at it as well. Permits? Doubtful. Respectful of the Wilderness ? Ha ha, hardly. Take a look at their website and videos, oh, and their calendar for December 2021.

      • Stop non-essential travel February 16, 2021 at 6:36 pm #

        PS: were they reported to USFS ? yes …..

    • Sierra Lady February 16, 2021 at 1:33 pm #

      Those of us who volunteer for the Sierra Trash Eliminators group usually post “before” and “after” photos (on our Facebook page) of the trash/litter we pick up. This is done not so much for shaming purposes, but to encourage others to pick up after themselves in order to leave their campsite (whether legal or illegal) cleaner than they found it. It is also motivation for our members to help where they can at the popular trouble spots and support one another. Wouldn’t it be great if the Leave-No-Trace campers would post their proud photos, too?

  15. Robert February 16, 2021 at 7:34 am #

    Current USFS campground fees are ridiculous. $10 is all I will pay. Since people refuse to take their trash back home with them I feel a location for disperse campers to dispose of trash is necessary and the location well advertised.

  16. DM February 16, 2021 at 4:55 am #

    We dodged the bullet last Labor Day 2020 with all the dispersed campers in Mono County! I have no idea how a loose campfire didn’t burn Mammoth Lakes or June Lake down late summer. Yes fire restrictions were in place, but campers still had campfires only a mile from town even with the Creek fire smoke in our towns. Just off scenic loop all the dispersed campers were side to side. Bottom line is ENFORCEMENT!
    If you don’t have the MONEY for enforcement you shouldn’t have dispersed camping! PERIOD!
    Please don’t let our towns burn first and later say…….”we didn’t have the resources to enforce and protect all the land”!

    • Robert February 16, 2021 at 2:05 pm #

      btw, blame the forest service for closing campgrounds without considering the impact

  17. Sierra Lady February 15, 2021 at 11:54 pm #

    Thank you for the shout-out of the all volunteer Facebook group “Sierra Trash Eliminators” founded by Erica Johnsen. I can’t begin to relay just how much trash/litter myself and my fellow volunteers picked/cleaned up last Spring/Summer/Fall and continue to behind the illegal winter campers. I’m pleased to read about Supervisor Gardner taking the bull by the horns because we need to figure out something, be it permits and education combined with more enforcement before our region becomes inundated once again. More people will continue to visit in this capacity as the pandemic continues and I imagine even after it is over. The time for action is now!


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.