Dispersed Camping & Recreation Management: FAQ

Jun 13th, 2022 Written by suwa

Q: What’s the difference between “open dispersed” and “designated dispersed” camping? What are the benefits of moving to a designated dispersed system in southern Utah?

The difference between “open dispersed” camping (also known as “undeveloped” or “primitive” camping) and “designated dispersed” is site designation. This means when you’re out on public lands looking for a primitive campsite, you will need to find a pre-designated and already-disturbed spot with a marker placed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) indicating that it is a dispersed camping spot.

According to the draft environmental assessment (EA) from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) for one of the proposed camping management areas, there are several benefits to providing designated dispersed camping in crowded places like southern Utah, as opposed to a completely open model:

  • “Limiting dispersed camping to designated campsites would allow the BLM to place campsites in locations that would not cause deleterious impacts to other recreationists who are attempting to enjoy their public lands. Designated campsites would not be placed within view of popular biking, hiking or 4×4 routes and would be placed far enough apart so that visitors do not feel crowded. All designated campsites would be placed on designated roads, leading to a lessening of cross-country motorized travel.”
  • “Designating campsites and requiring fire pans would lessen the proliferation of rock fire rings and accumulation of ash in designated campsites. Should clean-up be required, designated campsites would allow recreation staff to know where to find the detritus left by irresponsible campers.”
  • “The requirement to carry out all solid human waste would lead to a cleaner environment and more enjoyable camping experience to recreationists. The supplementary rules disallowing the cutting of trees would help in providing campers with shade and privacy and enhance the camping experience. The Proposed Action would be beneficial to recreational experience for those visitors looking for clean, inviting, and sustainable camping opportunities. Those visitors who wish to camp where they choose without the regulation of designated campsites would be inconvenienced by the Proposed Action.”

Q: Will this change mean that camping is harder to find or access? What if my favorite dispersed camping spot isn’t “designated”?

The good news for recreationists is that, through a designated dispersed management strategy, there will be many, many popular sites designated throughout the areas. Because the intent of this approach is to make it more obvious as to what sites exist for dispersed camping, sites that have been consistently used in the past are far more likely to be designated because they are already obvious as disturbed areas. In short: current popular sites will likely be included.

Additionally, when it comes to access of sites, this management strategy will likely result in an easier time getting to sites and finding them because sites will be easily visible, dispersed logically over accessible areas, and located near vehicle access points.

However, a dispersed site may not be designated in this management process if it has adverse impacts on wildlife, cultural resources, or other important ecosystem or visitor considerations.

Q: So does this mean that I’ll have to camp around a bunch of other people, or won’t be able to find solitude like I can now?

No. Done properly, a designated dispersed system should improve your camping experience. Proper site planning can ensure that public land users have a quality experience when camping, including quiet soundscapes, dark skies, and scenic views.


Q: Will there be a financial cost to go dispersed camping where it used to be free? How do land management agencies balance the need for ecological, wildlife, and cultural resource protection with equitable access for recreationists– especially those on the lower end of the socioeconomic bracket?

Dispersed camping will still be free and will not require a permit or reservation in the areas currently proposed for a “designated dispersed” system.

By directing recreationists, including campers, hikers, and other public user groups to designated and planned-for campsites (including primitive, free sites), trails, and recreation locations closer to the “frontcountry,” land management agencies are best able to balance human experiences and impacts with other considerations of natural ecosystems. For example, wildlife do best when important habitat  for migration, breeding, and other life events is largely free of human disturbance.

Cultural sites also benefit from careful management and education. This includes leaving them unpromoted since high visitation can damage sensitive structures and artifacts, and Tribes with ancestral connections to these sites seek their continued protection.

Proactively managing for public land use in locations that are the most accessible to all visitors regardless of financial ability also brings equity into public lands recreation by allowing land managers to accommodate new user groups and ensure that all members of the public can make connections with public lands.

Concentrating use in appropriate and accessible areas allows land management agencies to minimize development and protect less-impacted backcountry ecosystems. Recreation ecology shows that the majority of impacts to wildlife, cultural sites, soils, and vegetation occur as a result of *initial* use, while additional use at previously-hardened and impacted sites, even at high levels, results in minimal additional impacts.

Q: In places like Grand County, dispersed camping has become an informal method of housing seasonal employees who support the tourism industry in Moab. How will this change in land management methodology impact those folks, and others who use dispersed camping to live in southern Utah?

As residents of rural southern Utah ourselves, we are aware of how important it is to our communities for residents to be able to dispersed-camp on public lands, especially during the extreme housing crisis that towns across the West are currently experiencing. Changes like those proposed by the Moab BLM are unlikely to negatively impact these community members for two reasons:

  • First, the areas currently proposed for “designated dispersed” camping management by the BLM are far enough away from town centers that they aren’t places that many local workers are likely to call home for the night. In Moab, for example, most dispersed camping by local workers occurs within a 20-minute drive of town, closer to the main highway thoroughfare on federal and state land parcels that are easy to access. None of these more-accessible locations are within the BLM’s proposed area of new camping management.
  • Second, even if locals seek out dispersed camping sites for housing that are within the areas proposed for new management, they will still have access to completely free, no-reservation places to camp. The only change is that they, like all other members of the public, will need to select a site that has been marked and indicated by the BLM for this purpose.