Forest Service uses inmate labor to demolish building in wilderness
WILDERNESS WITH A CAPITAL W
The Wilderness Act of 1964 legally defined wilderness areas, including the Eagles Nest Wilderness created in 1976 in the Gore Range west of Silverthorne.
According to the act: “A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
The wilderness designation prohibits logging, mining, oil and gas drilling, road-building and other development and limits human activities to recreation, scientific research and other non-invasive activities.
Visitors should follow Leave No Trace principles and these special regulations:
Motor vechicles, motorized or mechanized equipment (including mountain bikes and wheelbarrows) are prohibited.
Group size is limited to 15 people.
Dogs must be leashed at all times.
Campfires are not allowed at lakes, within 100 feet of streams or trails or above treeline.
Camps must be at least 100 feet from lakes, streams and trails.
Pack and saddle animals must not be hitched or tethered within 100 feet of lakes, streams or trails.
Equipment, supplies and personal property cannot be left longer than 72 hours.
For years, the U.S. Forest Service has wrestled with how to remove an old building from the Eagles Nest Wilderness.
“It’s hard to convey to people why it’s important,” said Ken Waugh, Dillon Ranger District recreation staff officer, but the building was an eyesore left over from mining in the 1950s, and it drew people off trail to explore and paint graffiti.
Protected wilderness areas are supposed to be places where no signs of civilization can be found, and Waugh said the building — the only one in the Eagles Nest Wilderness — took away from that experience.
Plus, Waugh said, people camped in the unstable structure, which contained asbestos.
White River National Forest employees considered using dynamite, heavy machinery, ATVs, pack mules, wheelbarrows and volunteer labor to remove the structure, which was associated with the nearby Boss Mine and likely built in the 1950s.
But, the Rock Creek Trail, about 7 miles northwest of Silverthorne, was closed to vehicles and other mechanized uses decades before, and the foresters wanted to follow the rules they enforced with the public.
Ultimately, they decided the least impactful option would be contracting with a crew of inmates who would demolish the structure with hand tools and willpower and then carry out cinderblocks and chunks of flooring and roofing.
“That’s kind of our niche, is doing a lot of the things that nobody else wants to do,” said Erik Wayland, trail and timber crew boss with Colorado Correctional Industries.
He said he’s never done a project like this in his nine years leading inmates on work in the forest.
After setting up camp on Monday, the crew improvised a way to carry out a water tank. They tied logs to the tank and hoisted it above their shoulders.
On Thursday, July 9, or day four of the project, he said his crew members have averaged 16 miles a day of hiking back and forth from the building site to the trailhead, half of those miles while carrying out 50 pounds or more of bricks and cement.
“It’s rough, but your body gets used to it,” said Andy Camacho, a crew member from Greeley. “Being out like this in the wilderness is definitely nice.”
A handful of the men saw a cinnamon-colored black bear on the trail Thursday.
Earlier in the week, they found a 1954 bottle of Seagram’s 7 whiskey inside a wall, as well as Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News articles from the mid-1950s.
Waugh said the Forest Service analyzed the value of using a crew of 18 people, which violates the wilderness area group-size limit of 15 people, and allowed the crew because they are mostly working and using the trails in small groups of two or three.
The crew will camp at Rock Creek and work for another couple weeks, returning to the prison in Buena Vista on the weekends, Wayland said. He added that he gets to know each of the season’s 16 to 18 inmates well over the course of working and camping together for about five months.
The work is voluntary, and Wayland is flooded every year with applications from inmates. He selects crew members carefully, he said.
The time must be right (They must be within a few years of being released from prison), and the crime must be right (They cannot have a history of violent crimes or sex offenses).
Wayland estimated 90 percent of his crew members were imprisoned for drug offenses, most of them related to methamphetamine.
The applicants must not have any incidents while in prison on their record, and they must pass a medical exam, physical fitness test and interview process.
They are paid $1.60 a day for regular labor and then an extra $6 a day if their work involves overnight stays. Most of his crewmembers earn about $150 a month, Wayland said.
The real incentive, though, is every day worked on the crew equals one fewer day in prison.
Wayland said he’s never dealt with anyone trying to escape, though he has handled the occasional fistfight. Anyone who doesn’t embrace the team atmosphere is replaced by another eager applicant.
Crew members smiled and talked Thursday as they trudged along the trail with their backpacks.
Chris Barnett, originally of Grand Junction, paused his work with a sledgehammer to chat with a small group of hikers from Texas and Florida.
The hikers said they were drawn by a noise that sounded like muffled gunshots, and they walked around the site inspecting the rocks and taking photos next to the piles of building material. One hiker told Barnett he was amazed by the crew’s lack of machinery.
“Gets you in shape,” he told him. “This and mine closures is a whole new level of physical exercise.”
Waugh said he’s glad the Forest Service chose to have people haul out the material by hand. Though the work takes longer, the sight spurs conversations with the public about environmental impacts and the meaning of wilderness.
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