Law keeping a close eye on the forests | AspenTimes.com

Law keeping a close eye on the forests

U.S. Forest Service photo.The U.S. Forest Service is investigating a case in which someone pumped an estimated 120 rounds from a handgun, high-powered rifle and shotgun into signs on Basalt Mountain shortly after Christmas.

The U.S. Forest Service will increase efforts this summer to catch people who shoot at signs, leave loads of garbage on public lands and poach closed roads and trails.

The Aspen and Sopris ranger districts refilled their opening for a law enforcement officer this winter after a vacancy of several months. New law enforcement officer, or LEO, Martine Saint-Denis said there’s apparently no shortage of demand for her time.

Shooting at signs, underage parties, littering and illegal trail use dominate scofflaw activities in the Sopris District surrounding Carbondale, she said. Illegal construction of cabins on public land and littering are issues in the Aspen District.

A citizen tip helped Saint-Denis nab an off-road enthusiast who ignored a closure on Avalanche Creek Road March 23. The man went around a gate with his truck, crashed a fence and tore up a road until he got stuck in the snow.

He returned with a friend the following day and convinced the man to ignore the closure and pull him out. Both men were caught by Saint-Denis. The man who originally ignored the closure received tickets with more severe penalties and was ordered to appear in federal court.

Basalt Mountain has been a particularly troubling area for the Forest Service.

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“We’ve already had illegal ATV use up there,” said Saint-Denis. She said off-road vehicles can tear up terrain, particularly at this time of year. Later in the spring and summer, going off roads and trails can spread noxious weeds.

The mountain is also a regular party place, often for minors. And they are notorious for leaving mounds of garbage.

“Basalt Mountain is also a huge hot spot for shooting signs,” Saint-Denis said.

She is still investigating a sign-blasting incident that occurred shortly after Christmas. One or more shooters fired roughly 50 rounds from a high-powered rifle, 40 from a shotgun and 30 from a handgun at two new signs at the fork between Cattle Creek and upper Basalt Mountain Road.

One or more shooters fired so many rounds at the signs that they sheared off the posts. Signs valued at $400 or more were ruined.

Sign destruction isn’t limited to obscure sites like Basalt Mountain in the winter. Someone took an ax to two Forest Service signs posted along Highway 133 between Carbondale and Redstone. One massive national forest sign was split while a fire danger posting sign was destroyed.

Saint-Denis said she will spend a lot more time on patrol at hot spots, but she has a lot of terrain to cover in the two districts, so she is asking for the public’s help.

“You don’t have to put yourself in any danger,” she said.

If a forest user spots illegal activity, from illegal trail use to large-scale littering or vandalism, try to get a description of a vehicle and of the people involved. Call Saint-Denis in Carbondale, 963-2266, or Aspen, 925-3445. Tips can be confidential.

In the Aspen District, Saint-Denis has already dealt with squatter issues. She is aware of three small cabins that were built illegally on public lands.

The Forest Service must go through a lengthy process to identify the people who built the structures, supply notice of demolition and then undertake the work. It’s a lengthy, costly process in terms of staff time, Saint-Denis said.

Probably the most frustrating problem is litter from parties and day users, she said. It is difficult to understand why forest users wouldn’t take out what they bring in, she said.

Bill Westbrook noted when he took over as Sopris District ranger last year, transferring from Wyoming, that he was shocked by the amount of garbage in the forest around Carbondale.

Saint-Denis said the problems stem from individual day users as well as large, unruly parties.

“Kids learn by example, and I don’t see many good examples out there,” she said.