Another cluster of campgrounds in the San Juan National Forest faces a ban on overnight camping because a handful of individuals have taken up residence there and trashed the place.
“People are going up there, camping all over the forest and making a mess of things,” said District Ranger Matt Janowiak. “And it’s gotten worse the last couple years.”
The areas at-risk of closure are three dispersed (free, undeveloped) camping areas about eight miles into La Plata Canyon, west of Durango: La Plata City, Madden Creek and Miners Cabin.
Forest Service officials say homeless people routinely violate the 14-day limit for stays, and leave mounds of trash.
The issue, along with budget cuts, has caused the district to reconsider how those sites are managed, said recreation program manager Brian White.
“This is becoming a public nuisance,” White said. “They are American citizens looking for a place to stay because they can’t find one in Durango, but we have federal regulations in place that say you can’t live on public land.”
The possible closure in La Plata Canyon is the latest in a string of campsites that now prohibit overnight stays because of transients overtaking an area in the forest.
Last year, the Forest Service cordoned off 2½ miles of Lower Hermosa Road in response to “people setting up long-term residency that seemed to be the biggest culprit.”
“We’re seeing human waste, garbage, drug use, underage drinking and vehicles denuding vegetation and rutting up wet areas,” Janowiak said at that time.
In the mid-1990s, the upper part of the Durango Hills subdivision road, as well as the first eight miles of Junction Creek Road up to the Animas Overlook, were also closed to dispersed camping.
“Whenever you have a population center with public lands nearby, this is a very common problem,” White said. “It’s not localized. It’s not the Forest Service picking on people in the San Juans.”
And now, more than 25 additional campsites are on the chopping block.
The transient population in La Plata Canyon is varied and complex, Forest Service officials agreed, and homeless people have been illegally living in the area for years. A few people have jobs and are trying to secure housing in Durango; others are living for free on federal land by choice; and some camp and then panhandle in Durango.
“There really is no one-size-fits-all in terms of characterizing it,” Janowiak said.
What is clear is the violation of federal law, which allows campers to stay at one site for two weeks, and then requires them to move at least two miles away.
Citations start at $250 and can increase for repeat offenders. Janowiak said there have been instances where the district brought individuals to federal court because of illegal living in the San Juan National Forest.
The problem, he said, is enforcement, and the lack of resources to do it.
“Sometimes they’ll leave at 5 in the morning and come back late at night so it’s difficult to catch them,” Janowiak said. “Or we leave notes, and they dismiss them.”
“Or they play musical campsites,” White added. “And go to several sites around the area.”
Grant McElwain, the on-site host of Kroeger and Snowslide campgrounds, about two miles south of the dispersed sites, said every year for seven years it’s the same thing: A new group of homeless people set up camp in the canyon and then complaints roll in.
“It drives anyone away who wants to camp there, especially if they have children,” he said. “There’s trash everywhere. It looks like a hog pen.”
McElwain is contracted to take care of the 23 supervised, fee campsites, the last decent grounds in the canyon, he said. After years of witnessing gross littering, drug-related disputes and late-night calls of domestic abuse, he wasn’t surprised at the proposed closure.
“They brought this on themselves,” he said. “But I don’t think closing it down will cause hardship on any of them. The people hurt most will be the locals who want to camp in the national forest.”
La Plata County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Ed Aber, who has taken the lead on resolving conflicts with the homeless camp near the Durango Tech Center, said the department is aware of the issues in La Plata Canyon.
“It’s on our agenda for this year to do some education and enforcement up there,” Aber said. “It’s important to teach them how to be better stewards of the land and not draw attention to themselves.”
At the homeless camp in town, for instance, Aber said last year’s organized trash pickup, prompted by a bear attack, amassed 13 pickup truck loads of garbage. This year, however, he said that number was reduced to six loads.
“What we can do is educate what is acceptable and what is not,” Aber said. “And then hold people accountable if they don’t meet those expectations.”
It’s no secret: Durango has a homeless issue. And what complicates matters are the varied stories of each individual.
Philip Sampson, who parked his RV at La Plata City last week, said he’s saving money from building custom log homes to buy property near Dolores. He follows the two-week limit, he said, and moves around the area.
“I just like the freedom,” he said.
Or Dillion Baker, recently relocated from Alaska, who hopes to put enough money away from landscaping this summer to bring his wife and child to Durango.
“I’m out here busting my ass trying to make a life for my family,” he said. “I’m not aiming to stay out here my whole life. This is just a new start for my family.”
Yet, as so often is the case in life, a few outliers ruin something good for others, Baker said.
On Monday, several campsites at La Plata City and Madden Creek were strewn with waste: garbage spilling out of over-stuffed trash bags, piles of beer and soda cans, cigarette butts, coils of copper wire, broken glass and even unattended fires.
With camping illegal on city and county land, people on the fringe of society are increasingly pushed to the forests. White said the district will look at options, but the most likely action would be to install a gate at the three campgrounds to limit use.
But how long the Forest Service can fall back on locking the gates to public lands as a response to illegal squatting is another, more difficult question, White said.
“What we want to do is identify locations getting hit, and decide what to keep open,” he said. “We need to do the best we can with what we got.”
And Durango is not unique. A January 2016 study by the U.S. Forest Service found the Rocky Mountain Region is experiencing the biggest increase in non-recreational, long-term camping compared with other regions in the National Forest system, spokesman Lawrence Lujan said.
“Our focus at this time is making sure people understand what’s acceptable so that all forest visitors are being good stewards of the land,” he said.