Forest Service displaces Montezuma campers, moves toward permanent closure
Passing Keystone Resort and heading east on Montezuma Road, motorists, cyclists and even the occasional meandering pedestrian are being met with new digital signage as of Monday, June 27: “Danger! Aggressive Bears. No Camping next 6 miles.”
A stroll up County Road 5, the narrow two-lane byway where vehicles straddle the double-yellow lines to dodge individuals hugging the makeshift rock shoulders to get around, leads to any number of level grounds adjacent to the Snake River. In many of these easily accessible locales — on their surface ideal for car camping not far from the road — the flow of the nearby water drowns out any potential hum of the overhead power lines and lends just enough privacy to avoid disturbance.
It’s this scenario, however — coupled with the oversaturation of long-term, illegal residential camping and heightened bear activities there because of it — that a week ago led the White River National Forest to issue an emergency closure of the area. No overnight camping is permitted within 1/4-mile of Montezuma Road or within 1/4-mile of Webster Pass Road for the first 1 1/2 miles up to the stream crossing.
“Montezuma has certainly been the challenging area for us,” said Bill Jackson, ranger for the Dillon District. “It hasn’t been an issue in just the last couple years; it’s been an issue for 15, 20 years. So that takes us to where we are now.”
For many years, people have been camping right behind no camping signs that hang in the area or simply removing the signage altogether and doing almost whatever they please. In turn, patrolling this region has chewed up as much as 80 percent of Dillon Ranger District law enforcement officer Jill Wick’s time, leaving much of the rest of her coverage area unmonitored.
The combination of abandoned campfires, concerns over impacts on the local water quality from the lack of bathrooms and excessive trash — everything from discarded food containers and soiled clothes to junked air mattresses and busted tents — created its own set of problems. Add the recent spike of human-bear run-ins, and the U.S. Forest Service felt it had no option but to act.
“It wasn’t really a choice,” explained Jackson. “When you’ve got three or four bears getting into tents and ripping up sleeping bags, we’ve got to do it for public safety.”
Reports of bear sightings and interactions this season from Montezuma Road campers were first logged with Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) the weekend of June 18. Then, on Sunday, June 26, two women were sleeping when a bear entered their tent and generated a sudden face-to-face encounter. The women were able to flee before facing any harm, and the bear destroyed the enclosure and sleeping bags in search of the snacks to which it had become accustomed with more humans (and their trash) in the area.
“We’re lucky no one got hurt,” said Jackson, “we really are. When bears are inches from campers, it can go either way. So yeah, that’s the point where you’ve got to take the next step.”
Since then, the Forest Service informed all campers — those doing so legally in one spot for up to 14 days, as well as those who have illegally taken any form of residence — they had to go. Those occupying space along the road were given until 4 p.m. on Monday, June 27 to vacate. A warning or two was given to those individuals who required more than one visit before citations would be issued, and, as of last week, the area has been cleared.
Coordinated daily patrols of the stretch split among the Forest Service, CPW and the Sheriff’s Office have been ramped up to ensure compliance. The Forest Service has also installed orange cones in popular spots and posted temporary bills warning of bears and the special order closure. And soon, following up on last summer’s initiation process, efforts will shift toward a permanent closure as early as Monday, July 18, with more durable signage, fencing and other physical impediments to be installed later to dissuade prospective squatters.
The Forest Service is just awaiting the formal objection period’s mid-July deadline to move forward with full closure plans and then anticipates getting back to business as usual. That is, even if additional monitoring will begin in neighboring Peru Creek and Keystone Gulch to confirm illegal residential camping doesn’t simply move a little further up the road. The difference between that and legitimate, recreational overnight stays is pretty straightforward, declared Jackson.
“You can kind of tell,” he said. “There’s a prohibition against living on the forest, even for a night. If you’re camping and then you get up in the morning and go to your job, then that’s residing.
“Stories we get from those folks are, ‘Oh, we’re just living here, so we can save enough money to move in somewhere,’” he continued. “Occupying the forest for residential purposes is prohibited. We’re not transitional housing.”
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