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.”
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.
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.
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.