For those interested in pitching a tent (or parking an RV) on the Allegheny National Forest, there are two main options.
Developed campsites offer certain amenities - bathrooms, showers, drinking water, cleared lots, tables, fire rings, fire wood for sale, paved roads, designated parking, and rules against being loud late at night.
Dispersed camping, basically finding a spot in the woods and spending the night, has other advantages - seclusion, being surrounded by nature, available firewood from deadfalls, and no one to tell you not to be loud late at night. "A lot of people like to dispersed camp because there are no regulations," Bradford Ranger District Recreation Team Leader Julie Moyer said.
In the photo above, a tent sits on the Allegheny National Forest off of Forest Road 160 in Mead Township. In the photo below, broken glass, paper and plastic litter remain on a dispersed camping site on the Allegheny National Forest off of Forest Road 160C in Mead Township.
The U.S. Forest Service encourages dispersed camping, but has an interest in setting some limits.
Someone looking to spend the night in the ANF can pitch a tent anywhere in a huge majority of the forest. Driving a truck through the woods to unload a pile of firewood or as a mobile bed is not encouraged.
"Don't drive through the woods," Moyer said. "We don't want a lot of soil to be moved. We don't want them 'boonie-ing' around, off-roading in the woods."
Soil disturbance is particularly damaging near streams. "Tire movement moves soils. Soil moves into water. Soil in the water kills aquatic vegetation. It can damage fish gills."
There are about 35 improved dispersed camping areas along Forest Road 160 between the Upper Reservoir and Jakes Rocks. The area is popular in part because it is a short drive from developed camping areas at Kiasutha and Dewdrop where campers can get drinking water and, for a $5-per-car fee, take hot showers. The Bradford Ranger District offers a handout with a list of improved dispersed camping areas.
When Forest Service employees notice tire tracks leaving the road to spots that campers use repeatedly, they can take steps to improve parking while discouraging driving very far into the woods. In some areas, large parking areas for several vehicles are created of compacted stone. In others, a space or two is cleared of brush and flattened. Those parking areas are generally surrounded by large rocks or fallen logs to keep vehicles from passing farther into the woods and disturbing the ground and vegetation.
Sometimes timbering or oil and gas operations are the basis of camping sites. An area cleared for a well, but never developed leaves a road to an open area suitable for tents. The same goes for log landings in areas that have been timbered. Sometimes, Forest Service officials ask the timber company not to plant new trees nor remove culverts that were originally considered temporary, leaving them in place to the benefit of dispersed campers.
Officers regularly check on popular dispersed camping sites to see if campers are being good stewards.
The majority of campers clean up after themselves, according to Moyer. "Most people do. You have a few that don't."
A group of campers from Pittsburgh said the same thing. "It's two or three percent that abuse the sites," one camper, who said he has been visiting the ANF for 40 years, said. "We find the campsites very, very clean."
And they try to leave their site cleaner than it is when they arrive.
That's something the Forest Service officials encourage. "We ask folks to carry in, carry out," Moyer said.
Packing and using garbage bags is a good way to avoid spending a lot of time picking up trash from around the campsite, Moyer said.
The camper directed Moyer to one site that was not left in good condition. There were broken bottles in several places, paper garbage, plastic cutlery, and food wrappers scattered about and cans and bottles left in the fire ring.
"This would be minor," Moyer said. One or two workers with rakes and shovels would have it cleaned up quickly. But "it still takes time."
She said eight to 10 percent of her seven team members' work hours are spent cleaning up dispersed campsites. Prison crews and volunteers can also be called on to help.
While the recreation staff recognizes that cleaning is part of the job, "we'd much rather by mowing (in a developed recreation area) or working on a trail," Moyer said.
In addition to the cost of paying recreation specialists to clean up after guests, the Forest Service pays other fees related to garbage. Moyer said the cost for dumpster service alone is about $5,200. For tires, appliances, roofing materials, and other large, dumped items, officials have to pay on an individual basis.
While dispersed camping is allowed on most of the forest, it is not allowed in areas marked day-use only, in certain marked research areas, and within 1,500 feet of the tree line of the Allegheny Reservoir or within 1,500 feet of the centerlines of the major roads around the reservoir - Routes 59, 321, and 262.
The distance restrictions are intended for both aesthetics and sanitary reasons, Moyer said.
Toilets are not handy to dispersed camping sites. Officials ask people partaking of dispersed camping to dig holes for waste and cover them up when they leave. People who use toilet paper in the woods typically don't carry it with them when they leave, she said. Burying it is better than leaving 'paper flowers' scattered about.
Toilet paper and other garbage detracts from the natural beauty of the forest and that's what people want.
"It's beautiful up here," said Nate Anderson of Pittsburgh, who is a veteran of a number of popular developed camping areas in the region. "This is by far my favorite place to camp."