Forest Service cracking down on squatters |

Forest Service cracking down on squatters

Bob Berwyn

FRISCO, Colo. – For years, local officials have been grappling with the issue of unauthorized long-term camping on national forest land. Along with the potential fire danger, so-called squatters sometimes cause a disproportionate impact to natural resources, including concentrations of human waste and garbage.A couple of years ago, for example, rangers and volunteers hauled truckloads of trash from favored squatter sites along Montezuma Road, including mattresses and miscellaneous pieces of furniture.But Dillon District Ranger Rick Newton said recently that the Forest Service has been diligently enforcing camping regulations and education public land users to tackle the problem. Those ongoing management efforts have made a difference.”I believe we’ve made substantial progress in addressing inappropriate, extended camping,” Newton said. “The level of activity has dropped. “We support peoples’ interest in recreation, but living on the national forest is not okay,” he continued.While enforcement resources on the White River National Forest are stretched thin, Newton said that the number of contacts have dropped in the past few years.”It’s a social issue, as well as being a national forest management issue,” he said, explaining that the high cost of housing and the wider issue of homelessness both help drive the popularity of long-term national forest camping.Newton said the Summit County push to create more affordable housing may also have helped to lower the number of squatters.”There are a number of folks and organizations in the community looking at social issues like affordable housing,” he said.The Forest Service has worked especially closely with local ski resorts.”They’ve let their employees know that it’s not appropriate to live on the national forest,” he said. As a result, some areas like Keystone Gulch seem to showing less signs of long-term camping than in previous years, he added.Despite the progress claimed by the Forest Service, Undersheriff Derek Woodman said Keystone Gulch is still identified as an area popular with squatters.”It certainly has improved but by no stretch of the imagination has it been eliminated,” Woodman said. “The situation has changed. We’re seeing more and more seasonal workers taking this as an opportunity to live for free in the woods. It’s not so much the historic unemployed or day-laborer style of squatter anymore,” he said.”I know for a fact that one of the sports shops in Frisco has employees living in the woods,” Woodman said, adding that the owner doesn’t seem to think it’s a problem.The potential for human-caused fires is one concern, he said, explaining that a small wildfire near the landfill last summer was most likely ignited at a nearby squatter’s camp.Of more concern to Woodman are the health hazards associated with unauthorized camping, including trash pits and the lack of any sanitation facilities.The squatters are also becoming more clever as far as hiding their sites, Woodman said, explaining that deputies and rangers just recently found five sites near the North Tenmile Creek trailhead.”Some of them are pretty sophisticated and concealed,” Woodman said.Coincidentally, local officials met this week to train for a statewide homeless count, set for Aug. 28-29.”The last count was conducted 17 years ago,” said Matt Korn, general assistance coordinator with the Family & Intercultural Resource Center. The Colorado Interagency Council on Homelessness has broadened the definition of homelessness since then, Korn explained.Korn said he will work with Forest Service rangers in advance of the survey to contact campers and encourage them to participate in the count. He said the federal agency deals with an average of about 100 unauthorized long-term campers per year, and about 50 at any given time.Forest Service camping regulations are designed to give people the chance to recreate by staying campgrounds or dispersed camping areas for up to 14 days on any given national forest. It’s a difficult rule to enforce, and not everybody agrees with it to begin with.Some people who camp on public lands for extended periods say it’s their right to spend as much time as they like on the national forests, and they claim they are good stewards of the land.But the Forest Service recognizes that free-for-all camping in heavily used areas just won’t work. The agency is in the process of adopting new land use regulations that would even more strictly regulate camping and other activities in high-use areas, including Summit County, as well as national forests close to heavily populated metro areas on the Front Range.”Dispersed camping works at low levels of use, but when it increases, you have sanitation issues,” said Ken Waugh, recreation staff officer for the Dillon Ranger District. Waugh said one recent list of squatter sites in Summit County included camps off Tiger Road, at the Gold Hill trailhead, near Old Dillon Reservoir and along Highway 6, between Keystone and A-Basin.Waugh said rangers would need to do more monitoring and maintenance even in dispersed camping areas to maintain Forest Service standards. But money and manpower are in such short supply that it’s hard to properly sign the areas, let alone do regular maintenance and patrols.The “Urban Frontcountry Initiative” as it’s being called, should at least help address the educational component, helping the public understand the need for more management, Waugh said.”People like dispersed camping,” he said. “They like to let their dogs run unleashed and shoot their guns.”But as visitor numbers on national forests continue to grow, the opportunities for that type of recreation will dwindle.The Urban Frontcountry Initiative covers the Arapaho & Roosevelt National Forest, the Pike & San Isabel National Forest and the White River National Forest.According to the Forest Service web site for the initiative,, ” … crowded roads and trails, user conflicts, vandalism, sanitation issues and unsustainable impacts to soil, water and vegetation, are the focus of the Urban Frontcountry Initiative. Forest managers realize the need to change management direction and better protect and enhance the recreation opportunities for the urban users of these forests.”