Law returns to Aspen’s forests | AspenTimes.com

Law returns to Aspen’s forests

ASPEN ” The U.S. Forest Service is beefing up law enforcement efforts in the Aspen area to deal with the variety of problems unique to a popular national forest.

A law enforcement officer, or LEO, will be added to the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District staff this month, according to district Ranger Irene Davidson. The position in the sprawling 720,000-acre district has been vacant for nearly four years.

The Forest Service’s law enforcement department for the Western Slope has also conducted saturation patrols twice this summer in the Aspen-Sopris District.

“We’ve got a greater presence over there than we’ve had in a number of years,” said Dan Nielsen, a patrol captain who supervises all Forest Service law enforcement officers on the Western Slope.

Three law enforcement officers worked the district for 2 1/2 days over Labor Day weekend and made 425 contacts with citizens, Nielsen said. They wrote 88 violation notices and issued 45 warnings, he said, but a big part of their job was education when forest visitors were breaking one rule or another.

“We’re not out there to give anybody a hard time,” Nielsen said.

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Typical tickets were issued for such infractions as driving a motor vehicle on a prohibited road or trail, leaving a campfire unattended, camping in an inappropriate spot or for too long of a time.

In a saturation patrol in the upper Fryingpan Valley in July, law enforcement officers also patrolled Ruedi Reservoir and checked for compliance with boating regulations.

People who are ticketed can pay the fine or dispute the charge and appear in federal court in Grand Junction.

Nielsen said illegal residency in the forest has evolved into a big problem around Aspen and other resort areas like Vail, Steamboat Springs and Crested Butte.

The promise of steady employment lures workers into those area, but the high cost-of-living and lack of affordable housing sometimes leaves them without a place to stay. They often set up camp in the national forest, at least during warm-weather months.

The problem created by squatters is resource damage, Nielsen said. Soils are compacted by long-term, concentrated use, leaving the ground unable to absorb moisture and eventually making it barren. Long-term campers often leave garbage and human waste behind, and fires are sometimes left unattended.

Squatters also tend to pick some of the best sites, depriving other forest visitors of a chance to use them, Nielsen noted.

Compliance with travel management restrictions is also a problem at certain times of the year, such as big-game hunting season, Nielsen said.

Hunters sometimes use an all-terrain vehicle on a trail closed to motorized uses to get to their prey so they can haul it out.

However, forest visitors in the Aspen-Sopris District generally obey trail and road closures. “Overall the population over there is a little more conscientious than other populations,” Nielsen said.

Construction of illegal cabins, fences, trails and roads also consumes a fair share of the time of Forest Service law enforcement officers, according to Nielsen.

Tim Lamb, a longtime Forest Service employee in the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District, said most people visit the forest for the right reasons. However, the easy accessibility to the woods and the growing resident population of the Roaring Fork Valley create conditions ripe for occasional problems.

Violent crimes are infrequent in the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District, Lamb said. Most law enforcement issues involve damage to the forest. Abandoned vehicles and trash dumping are two problems that might not be apparent, he noted.

The addition of the law enforcement officer is welcomed because it means other workers out in the field can concentrate on their specialties and let the officer handle most of the legal issues, Lamb said.

Davidson said the Forest Service isn’t interested in a heavy-handed law enforcement approach. She believes the greatest benefit of adding a law enforcement officer is creating more contact between the Forest Service and public and educating forest users about proper use of the outdoors.

The addition of the officer in the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District means the 2.3-million acre White River National Forest now has three such staffers.

scondon@aspentimes.com

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