As I've trekked through our parks and forests over the years, I've occasionally seen signs of people who may have decided to get away from civilization — "unplug" and live "off the grid," or what have you — and take up residence in our open spaces. There may have been the remnants of a hastily, crudely constructed shelter, but usually not much more. I hardly ever saw any trash or debris, and I never ran into anyone living in them, nor did I feel particularly uncomfortable when I found one of these sites while out on the trails.
But a lot has changed over just a couple of years. It's not the lone, rugged individual who may be taking up residence in a remote section of the forest anymore. It may be entire families, some driven by homelessness or poverty, some for access to legal marijuana, some simply choosing that lifestyle. Regardless of why they're there, they bring with them the detritus of using the forest for a permanent or semi-permanent home. Furniture, trash, pets, human (and other) waste left behind causes irreparable harm to the ecology while also ruining the outdoors experience.
On a recent hike near Mount Herman, an area prone to frequent use, I was somewhat surprised to find not only some shelters that appear to have been used by transients or squatters, but even a bridge across a creek leading to a homeless camp. For the first time that I can ever recall, I felt an uneasiness, wondering who had the time to construct this, and were they still in the area, maybe watching me? After a career in fire service and law enforcement, I'm always pretty aware of my surroundings, but this hike, one that I've done many times before with nary a worry, had me feeling different, wary.
To be fair, most people taking up residence in our parks are harmless — to us, but not the environment — and maybe ignorant of Forest Service regulations; limits to how long they can camp, how far away from trails and water their camp must be, how to dispose of trash, etc. But how do we know?
Besides being used as a place of residence by homeless people, there has been a large increase in legitimate recreational use, whether by locals camping for the weekend or tourists passing through the area. Many legitimate users are just as guilty of poor practices when it comes to keeping a good camp.
Forest Service officials bemoan the decline in land use ethics. Many people believe that since they pay — either through taxes or fees — to use the land, they can do what they want, since it's theirs. They lose sight of the fact that it's also yours, mine and everyone else's land, and maybe we don't want it to be trashed or misused. So while the homeless family taking up residence in the forest is a problem, the blame for the wear and tear on our public lands lies with almost all users.
So, what are we to do? Well, first start by understanding "Leave No Trace" practices (lnt.org), or by joining a group such as Tread Lightly (www.treadlightly.org). Always keep in mind that the land belongs to all of us, so instead of thinking of it as being your land, consider that you're using it as a guest of the next person who's going to use it. If you wouldn't want to spend your first day camping just cleaning up someone else's mess, the next person coming through probably likely doesn't want to clean up yours.
Finally, if you see a camp that looks like someone is taking up residence, report it. If you see a mess that needs to be cleaned, use caution if you decide to clean it up yourself (and thank you, if you do). The miscreant who left the mess may have left some hazardous stuff behind.
If you're not sure, report it. You can call the Pikes Peak Ranger District at 719/636-1602, or use the contact form on the website: www.fs.usda.gov.
"Hiking Bob" Falcone is a retired firefighter, photographer, author of Hiking Bob's Tips, Tricks, and Trails, and a regular contributor to the IndyBlog.