Campers abandon campfires, garbage

Barbara Lawlor, Boulder County.   It is more than the empty whiskey bottles, the beer cans, the plates of rotting food, the moldy clothes, the bags of dog food, the used toilet paper held down by a rock. It is even more than the large smoldering log in the abandoned fire ring, ready to play with the next strong breeze. A feeling of danger, of malevolence and certainly a sense of carelessness pervades the abandoned campsites at the West Magnolia campground area.

Last Tuesday, the day that Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle announced that a fire ban was in place, Nederland Fire Protection District chief Rick Dirr asked  firefighter and administrator Jim Harrison to patrol the campground, look for any live campfires, and advise campers of the fire ban.

There are 22 sites in the campground, some closer to the road than others, some farther away from the road, isolated from the other sites. Historically, West Mag has been a gathering place for Rainbow Family travelers, transients looking for a free place to sleep for the summer months. They spend their time moving from campsite to campsite, one step ahead of the rangers or law enforcement officers that try to monitor how long someone has been inhabiting the area. Harrison wasn’t interested in who stayed how long. He just wanted to make sure that those who left had put out their campfires, and that those who were still there had not left them unattended.

Chief Dirr says he is angry at the disrespect that many campers show towards our neighboring forests. All summer long, his firefighters have been dispatched to douse abandoned campfires, still alive with coals glowing in the ashes, logs that were never completely put out. They have found campfires left unattended while visitors take a hike or go to Boulder to see a movie, leaving a fire ring with small flames, hungry for more fuel.

In recent weeks, criminal incidents at the campgrounds have escalated, bringing in a violent aspect of camp life, including gunshots and assaults. Who is responsible for the legal issues? Who is held accountable for putting out the fires? Whose chore is it to clean up after the non housebroken transients who soil our forest land?

Some of the abandoned campsites were infested with the detritus of destructive people. Bullets and machetes, underwear hanging off branches of trees, all kinds of shoes and boots, the contents of a wallet including identification strewn about the site, as if someone had intentionally scattered the library cards, the family pictures. One of the identification cards led to a man with seven felonies on his record.

On the inner layer of one of the tents was taped a warning, stating that a live feed camera was watching every visitor and someone would be there within minutes of entry into the tent. It was not a friendly note.

High tech tents and backpacks filled with dirty clothing were left behind. Harrison said the gear was often stolen from Boulder outdoor shops or donated by agencies attempting to help the homeless. The transients didn’t want to carry the equipment out. Nor did they want to carry out their garbage. Some of the sites had garbage bags filled with bottles, cans, and empty food containers. At least there was an attempt to put everything in one place for whoever showed up to take out the trash. There are no garbage cans, no dumpsters. A pile of bags packed with the remnants of camping life was left at one of the West Mag campground entrances.

Chief Dirr is angry. He is disgusted that these people from other places are coming into our forest neighborhoods and creating fire danger, as well as a human invasion; by people with an obvious lack of caring about the forest’s health and no knowledge regarding stewardship of the land.

How can we make sure these campers clean up their sites and douse their fires before they leave? We can’t.

Last year, a group of firefighters and residents gathered at the West Mag area to pick up after these rude visitors left. Tons of trash were hauled away. It appears as if the same project will have to take place again.

One of the problems with the campground is the hierarchy of jurisdiction, says Nederland Police Department chief, Paul Carrill. Ultimately, the United States Forest Service has the final say on policies regarding its district’s protocol. Our USFS district has one law enforcement officer.

The BCSO deputies have a regular patrol, as do the NPD officers. There is an inter-governmental agreement which dictates that a 7.5 mile area outside of Nederland’s boundary be jointly patrolled. “Our officers are self-initiated,” says Chief Carrill. “They go on pro-active patrols and respond when dispatched to the area. Our goal is to preserve life and stabilize a situation until the county or the forest service can get there.”

He says that transients are definitely staying over 14 days resulting in the trashing of the camp sites, assaults, disturbances, gunfire, alcohol and drug abuse, and stolen property. He says the expectation of privacy within a campsite is limited, that a search warrant is needed to go inside a tent, but the rest of the campsite is pretty visible.

Carrill says it is the forest service’s responsibility, in partnership with local initiatives, to work together to clean up the neighboring forest. Firefighter Harrison says that a hosted campground situation would help, that monitoring the campers could have a mitigating affect on the impact.

In the last couple of years, Brainard Lake has upgraded its camping area, an expensive but successful project. The money was spent there, why can’t it be spent here, residents ask. Nederland businesses and citizens receive the direct impact of the criminal campers and the panhandlers, which are actually about only one percent of the transients.

“This is unacceptable,” says Carrill, who is responsible for the safety of the Nederland residents.

During his patrol, Harrison had to put out four abandoned campfires. He said he knows there are illegal campsites beyond the designated spots.

One of the campers said he was grateful for the chance to live in the beautiful Colorado woods, but “It’s like living in an apartment: you have to trust everyone not to burn the place down.”

The Rocky Mountain Youth Corp is expected to be in the area for the next week in one of this year’s first efforts to clean up the campsites.

Barbara Lawlor

Barbara is a reporter for The Mountain-Ear.