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Squatters pose challenge for officials

Jane Stebbins

SUMMIT COUNTY – Ron Alexander wants Summit County commissioners, the district attorney, the sheriff, the Forest Service – anyone – to do something about the squatters in the woods before their illegal campfires and errant cigarette butts ignite the dry timber near his home.

The 61-year-old man lives near the Meadow Creek trailhead, at the junction of Interstate 70 and Highway 9 in Frisco. He spends his days tending the land, which involves walking the mile-and-a-half-long ditch to ensure it is free of debris.

It was during one of those ditch watches his daughter noted lean-tos made of fallen lodgepole pines, campfire rings, clothing and trash – mostly newspaper, grocery bags and empty beer cans – strewn across the land.

Alexander decided to take a look for himself and found Milo Shagena sitting on an overturned bucket making coffee over a campfire. Alexander told the man he wasn’t allowed to have fires within a quarter-mile of the road, at which point, Alexander said, Shagena accosted him and his daughter.

“He went wild,” Alexander said. “He came off that chair, he grabbed me by the arm, and he’s slinging me around like dishrag. My daughter tried to help, and he slung her against a tree.”

Shagena was found guilty of a misdemeanor assault charge Friday, June 21 and sentenced to 20 hours of community service. But Alexander said he is more concerned about the danger in which Shagena – who’s back at his campsite – and others place the forest with campfires and cigarette smoking.

“My major concern is the fire thing,” Alexander said. “I could fill a gallon pail of cigarette butts that have been flipped out there. We don’t need Summit County turning into another Hayman.”

According to Alexander, signs are posted around the area indicating camping and fires are not permitted within a quarter-mile of the road.

He has since returned to the area and noticed tire tracks where vehicles are not allowed. Another so-called “woodsie” chopped down four trees in the area and began making a door frame and walls for a cabin. Trash is strewn throughout the area.

And Alexander can’t get anyone to do anything about it.

The Forest Service is short-staffed on a regular basis; wildfires blazing throughout the state have further depleted their ranks. U.S. Forest Service law enforcement officer Tom Healy said his hands are tied by the courts.

“They say, “OK, you’ve spent some time in jail; don’t do it again,'” he said. “Like all the folks who live on the streets in Denver, they just fall through the cracks. They just keep running through the system.”

Shagena may be one of them, he said. Currently, Healy is trying to find the man to issue him a federal warrant for failing to appear on charges of living in the national forest. It won’t do much good, however.

“They’ll just say, “Don’t do it anymore,’ and he’ll come back,” Healy said. “The courts don’t want to deal with him.”

Squatters are most prevalent in the Meadow and Miners creeks areas in Frisco, Montezuma Road and Keystone Gulch and Tiger Road north of Breckenridge. They take up about 60 to 65 percent of Healy’s time, he estimates. And the situation is exacerbated if the squatter is mentally ill, as many are.

“The law is pretty limited as to how long someone can be institutionalized against his will,” Healy said.

But word of the fire ban seems to have reached those who call the woods their home, he said. The U.S. Attorney has directed federal agents such as Healy to issue a summons rather than a ticket to those who violate the fire bans. Violators will then be required to appear in federal court in Denver, where a judge will sentence them.

“It’ll probably be pretty harsh,” Healy said. “That’s a pretty extreme step. The courts don’t want more work. For them to say, “Make them come to court instead of giving them the option to pay’ is a really huge step.”

Chief Deputy District Attorney Mark Hurlbert understands Healy’s frustration.

“If they burn the forest down, we can relocate them to Canon City for awhile,” he said, referring to the prison in that city. “There’s not a lot the criminal justice system can do. It is really scary. But if they are committing a crime, if they have a fire or if flicking cigarettes around, we will prosecute it. And there will be no plea offers.”

County commissioners recognize the problem as well, but say they’ve done all they can by putting the fire ban in place.

“It’s not like they have gas appliances or electricity, so if they’re going to cook or stay warm, they may want to start a fire,” said Commissioner Gary Lindstrom. “It’s a much larger problem than people imagine.”

Alexander was raised in Summit County. He doesn’t want the forest to go up in flames.

“The forest is part of us,” he said. “And people are still up there building campfires, still flipping cigarettes. Maybe after everybody’s houses have burned down from here to Wildernest, maybe then they’ll do something about it.”

Jane Stebbins can be reached at 668-3998 ext. 228 or jstebbins@summitdaily.com.


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