U.S. Forest Service moves to end popular squatting site near Keystone
The line between camping and squatting hasn’t been so clear at a popular site near Keystone.
That’s why the Dillon Ranger District announced earlier this week it is leading an effort to ban year-round overnight camping within a 1/4 mile of Montezuma Road and along a 4-mile stretch between Keystone and Montezuma. The proposed measure is part of the larger goal of cracking down on illegal activities, including potential wildfires from unattended campfires and trash and other waste entering the adjacent Snake River.
“We’re seeing more and more campsites created, and it’s become so oversaturated with people in campers that it’s almost impossible to manage for a quality experience for the public,” said Bill Jackson, district ranger for the White River National Forest. “We’ve tried all management techniques over the last 20 years, but, with reduced resources, we need to do something more substantial out there.”
The U.S. Forest Service has continued to face increased annual budget cuts across the nation, which has spread services and enforcement thinner each year. As a result, when an employee leaves the agency, often a new hire is not made to replace them, and their responsibilities are simply dispersed among other existing staff, or halted altogether.
The White River, for example, used to have five law enforcement officers for its sprawling 2.3 million acres of land. After an agent left in the last six months, dropping the region’s forest to just three in the role, coverage areas were expanded, and monitoring Montezuma for this unauthorized settling of the area has become even more difficult.
“Unless you’re sitting out there 24/7,” said Jackson, “it’s just not going to change. There’s an abandoned camper out there right now. It’s all over social media that you camp out there for as long as you want, and that there are no rules. Word has gotten out that that’s the place to go.”
As is stands, the Dillon Ranger District’s law enforcement officer of more than a decade, Jill Wick, spends upwards of 80 percent of her time each summer surveilling this tiny zone. Based on there being hundreds of roads and trails that also require her attention — her coverage area also recently expanded all the way to Vail — management of this area has become an infeasible prospect, even with the occasional assistance from the Summit County Sheriff’s Office.
“It’s been the last couple years,” said Sheriff John Minor, “and last summer, we started getting petitions from Montezuma residents and residents along Montezuma Road, sending us photos on a daily basis. We’ve tried to put up additional signage and offer additional enforcement, but it really hasn’t been that effective. We’d get people out of there and then go tend to another issue, and people are right back at it again.”
The primary issue remains unsanctioned campfires, which could cause a substantial brush fire were one to get out of control, as well as trash and human excrement left behind, given the proximity to the nearby water body. But parking through this narrow roadway is also a major challenge.
“There’s only one way in and out of Montezuma,” said Sheriff Minor, “so that’s a concern, especially if there were a fire. So parking along Montezuma Road also causes problems.”
The Dillon Ranger District’s proposed plan is based on a 2002 national directive of the Forest Service to close all camping within 100 feet of any stream or lake. In 2011, forest supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams followed that up by signing a special order to enable enforcement of that regulation by the Dillon Ranger District.
The district did so by prohibiting camping at various drainages throughout Summit County: Straight Creek behind Dillon, Miners Creek in Frisco, Tenmile Canyon between Frisco and Copper Mountain and any pullout around Dillon Reservoir. The new amendment would be added to the existing closing order for these other sites. Once in place, not complying would come with penalties from a verbal warning up to a couple-hundred-dollar fine per violation.
Joining the ranks
Summit County is unusual among most resort communities nationwide, in that it still offers some dispersed camping opportunities at some drainage areas. This addendum is long overdue and helps to align the region with other ski areas, such as those in Vail, Steamboat Springs or Moab, Utah.
“In these other places,” said Jackson, “there are not a lot of areas where you can just plop down and camp. They already have the model in place for only designated or developed campgrounds. It’s a product of the sheer number of people, and what’s manageable by the agency for a high-quality environment.”
The Dillon Ranger District is much more urban than many other regions on the forest, notes Jackson, but still has ample campsites available — more than 500 throughout the county at between $10 and $20 per night. In addition, the new regulations on Montezuma Road would not impact day-use activities, nor the six developed campgrounds adjacent to Dillon Reservoir and further north at Green Mountain Reservoir. Still, the Forest Service sees no other option in combating would-be campers to the area.
“We don’t have the resources to watch people come in and out,” said Jackson. “Due to the influx of people, we need to lose disbursed camping opportunities there because of the fragility of the resource. It’s just too much.”
The district hopes to fast-track this measure on the section of Montezuma Road for implementation by this summer and is currently in the initial scoping and public comment period for the proposal. There will be additional chances for citizens to comment as well, but interested parties may do so now by visiting the White River National Forest’s website at: http://www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=48736.
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