Forest-dwellers abound in Summit County |

Forest-dwellers abound in Summit County

Janice Kurbjun
summit daily news

At any given time, at least 100 people, give or take, could be living illegally in the woods surrounding Summit County’s populated areas.

“There’s clearly more than what we think,” Summit County Sheriff John Minor said. “The number is pretty difficult to speculate at, because they do want to be concealed. The campsites aren’t public, because what they’re doing is technically illegal per Forest Service standards.”

The U.S. Forest Service’s Dillon Ranger District has one ranger – Jill Wick – to patrol forest lands on which people take up residence. Because it’s Forest Service law that’s being broken, she’s the only one with jurisdiction to issue fines ranging from $275 to $5,000 and six months in jail. Other agencies like the sheriff’s office can help point Wick in the right direction.

“She’s stretched pretty thin,” Minor said.

His staff typically stumbles upon illegal campsites either by accident out in the field or through conversations with citizens who discover a camp.

Often, people who live in the woods live relatively close to town so they can easily access work and social life.

illegal campers became a topic of discussion after one forest-dweller – Karl Kohler – was killed near the Burro Trail Trailhead on Peak 9 near Breckenridge. Another individual believed to have made his home in the woods was arrested Thursday for the murder.

Forest-dwellers join the community as restaurant workers, ski shop and ski-area employees. Many have been in Summit County for years.

Squatters, as they’re known, are typically more prevalent in summer, but some choose to stay in the woods all year, Minor said. They’re not homeless, he clarified. It’s a residence by choice, not necessity.

“Some of them just enjoy that lifestyle, the freedom, not being tied down to a wooden structure of a home,” Minor said.

According to Wick, the official definition of a squatter is “a person who occupies National Forest land for residential purposes without authorization.”

“Many squatter camps also involve other resource-related violations, such as unsanitary conditions, tree cutting, ground disturbance and abandonment of gear and household property,” she said.

Though squatters are not uncommon, it’s not easy to penetrate the community because they often don’t commune.

“Typically, it’s one person per camp. They don’t even share camp with each other. They’re pretty private; it’s not like our homes where we can have them locked up. Personal items are out in the open, so they do keep it pretty secret, even from each other,” Minor said.

Because of that, it’s hard to dial in the exact population. After Kohler’s body was found and deemed a homicide, law-enforcement officials found there’s a bigger contingent of squatters outside the Breckenridge limits to the south than they once thought. There are some known sites off Tiger Road, but according to Minor, the majority of squatters live near Frisco. The Ten Mile Trail, Miner’s Creek Trail and Meadow Creek Trail are the most common, he said.

“Years ago, when trees were a little thicker, some lived between the Medical Office Building and the County Commons because of close proximity to the library,” he added, explaining that even people who live in the woods like to stay connected via the Internet, which they can access for free at the library.

Forest-dwelling is not a phenomenon limited to Summit County. In Chaffee County, where 54 rafting companies hire guides to run commercial guests down the Arkansas River, guides often take up on nearby Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service land.

“It has been an issue in the past, but we’ve spent a lot of time working with our outfitters and ensuring that they know the regulations to pass on to their guides, because we don’t want their guides to get into any trouble,” said John Nahomenuk, the BLM river manager stationed out of the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Association office in Salida.

It’s legal to camp for 14 days in one location on BLM land in a 30-day period, but then it’s necessary to move 30 air miles away. However, it’s illegal to “establish occupancy, take possession of or otherwise use public lands for residential purposes,” regulations state.

“There’s a difference between recreational camping, which is a person who goes into the woods to camp with a family for a weekend or something, that’s limited to 14 days,” Nahomenuk said. “But you can’t even reside on BLM land for a day, let alone 14, and wake up and go to work every day. … Or we’d have everybody living on federal land.”

The situation in Buena Vista and Salida is somewhat different, though, in that often, guides outnumber the amount of available rental properties. Because they’re in the area for just a few months, it’s also difficult to find a rental term that works.

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