Intensive Forest Service patrols in Aspen area on then off again
Pitkin County commissioners heard an outline of the nebulous idea Tuesday.
Because of difficulty with “inappropriate” camping this summer in the Maroon Creek Valley, the Castle Creek Valley, along Lincoln Creek Road and in other areas up Independence Pass, the U.S. Forest Service wanted to import law enforcement officers from surrounding areas to conduct an intense, multi-day “saturation patrol” of those areas, said Phyllis Mattice, assistant Pitkin County manager.
Those caught creating or camping in illegal, dispersed sites or misusing established sites would be kicked out during the patrols, which would last until midnight, Mattice said.
The Forest Service wanted Pitkin County to pay for the operation using money the county had already given the strapped federal agency to pay for two seasonal law enforcement positions that were not filled this summer, she said.
By Friday, however, the proposed patrols had been canceled, said Shelly Grail, recreation manager for the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District. She said she received an email Thursday night from a Gunnison-based Forest Service law enforcement officer calling off the operation, though she didn’t know the reasons behind it.
Chris Mandrick, the Forest Service’s Aspen-based law enforcement officer, confirmed Friday that the operation had been canceled for the time being, though he said he couldn’t speak about it on record without permission.
Ken Pearson, the Forest Service’s regional patrol commander in Denver, declined to give that permission.
“Because it’s kind of sensitive,” he said. “I don’t fully understand what’s going on myself.”
The Gunnison-based law enforcement officer did not return a phone message Friday seeking comment.
The problems apparently relate mainly to excess human waste in the camping areas, some of which are next to rivers and streams, though illegal sites are a problem too, Mattice told commissioners Tuesday during their regular weekly work session. For example, Forest Service officials recently caught the owner of Sprinter van cutting away brush to make a parking space for vehicle, she said.
In addition to Maroon, Castle and Lincoln creeks, officials also are dealing with “a lot of overuse of the day area at Difficult” Campground east of Aspen, Mattice said.
“They want to do an intense … kind of like a sweep,” she said.
Grail said Forest Service officers are seeing fires left unattended and people attempting to live on National Forest land.
“We’re seeing a lot of use in these areas and we need some help,” she said. “It’s not a new problem.”
The plan was to import two or three law enforcement officers from surrounding areas and conduct the patrols, Grail said. She did not know the specifics of how the operation might work. Mattice said she was told the operation would take place over a short period of a few days.
Commissioner Patti Clapper said Tuesday she was concerned that Forest Service officers might use heavy-handed tactics during the patrols. A decade or so ago during a similar operation, Forest Service officers overreached their authority by illegally searching people and pulling cars over on Highway 82, she said.
Clapper said she wanted to make sure Forest Service officers confined their operations to illegal camping and “not overstep their boundaries and harass people legally camping.”
Nan Sundeen, the county’s health and human services director, said Tuesday that she wanted anyone “rousted” from a campsite to be given directions to the Day Shelter at the Health and Human Services Building next to Aspen Valley Hospital, where people can take showers and do laundry.
“These are our people,” Sundeen said. “We have people working here who have no place to sleep. It’s gotten very difficult to (live) in this county.”
Mattice said part of the crowded camping problems might be the result of stricter enforcement of overnight parking and camping at the Intercept Lot at Brush Creek Road and Highway 82, and the Buttermilk parking lots.