Chronic campers facing jail
Campers who pitch their tents on Pitkin County’s open space may find themselves sleeping on a cot behind bars instead of in a sleeping bag under the stars.The newly conceived penalty, one of a number of amendments to the Pitkin County code approved Wednesday, is meant to keep illegal, chronic campers – squatters – off property owned and maintained by the county’s Open Space and Trails program,Camping is illegal on the county’s open space properties, but squatters often set up semi-permanent camps in more hidden locations where they can live. The illegal camps are costly to clean up, and currently open space rangers can give squatters only a summons to county court, where they face potential fines, said Dale Will, director of Open Space and Trails.”Civil penalties are simply not meaningful” to the squatters, Will told commissioners, noting that fines are often ignored. Will said he’s not anxious to start sending people to jail, but he looks at the penalty as a tool to get a squatter’s attention and enforce the law.The idea of strengthening the penalty for illegal camping had the support of all the county commissioners except Mick Ireland, who doesn’t want Open Space and Trails rangers put in a position where they have to confront offenders with jail time. Will pointed out that the rangers do not currently enter transient camps without a law enforcement officer at their side.”Unless you have a full arsenal of penalties for people who don’t care, you’re crippled in your endeavor to keep the area the way we want it,” Commissioner Michael Owsley said.Commissioner Jack Hatfield added that he sees jail as a necessary tool for managing the public’s open space lands. He added that it should be used with discretion.The change is up for a second reading at the commissioners’ Aug. 24 meeting.Chronic campers aren’t the only ones in the county’s open space dog house. Another change to the code would require that dog leashes be six feet or shorter on county open space. The proposed changes would also limit the total number of dogs accompanying a person across open space to three.Will said people with dogs also would be required to have some sort of poop receptacle when walking through open space or on trails.Changes to the code would also give the Open Space and Trails board authority to designate hunting areas on open space. The Division of Wildlife would need to sign off on any hunting areas, as the county doesn’t have the expertise necessary to administer a hunting program.Already people occasionally hunt on some of the county’s open space properties that are surrounded by public lands under the control of the U.S. Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management. In those cases, Will said, the rules on the open space is the same as it is on surrounding land.The county owns about 2,000 acres through its Open Space and Trails program and has conservation easements that bar development on about 10,000 acres of private property. The program is funded through property taxes.The proposed changes would also let open space use fire as a management tool to clear out accumulated dead wood. Currently, fires are suppressed as soon as they occur, which often means that a fuel load of dead trees and plants builds up in the lower story of the forest, stopping native grasses and plants from growing and affecting wildlife grazing patterns.”We’re not proposing that we start setting fires, but we want to be able to make a choice about ecology – if a fire touches on an open space parcel and can burn up some accumulated wood, it’s a good thing, not a bad thing,” Will said. In addition, getting rid of fuels in the forest often helps fires from becoming catastrophic when they do start, he added. Naomi Havlen’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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