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Illustration by Owen Freeman

Danger in the Forest

Coloradans and out-of-state visitors use the Centennial State's public lands to camp, hike, bike, ski, snowboard, and snowshoe—and to simply revel in the majestic beauty. But what happens when the perils of the wilderness go beyond the forces of nature?

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The wilderness outside Nederland, just 30 minutes west of Boulder, holds some of the most beautiful land near a major urban area in the state. Pine, aspen, and spruce trees dot the hillsides, and rock promontories provide ample scrambling opportunities from which to view the Continental Divide. Everywhere there are animal tracks, including those from moose, deer, foxes, coyotes, bears, and, on rare occasions, mountain lions.

People from around the country come here—to savor the solitude and beauty, to escape the chaos of their busy lives. They might hike or mountain bike, snowshoe or fly-fish. And if they’re looking to spend the weekend away, they can head to any one of dozens of campgrounds located across the Front Range, like, for example, the Gordon Gulch Dispersed Camping Area tucked just off the famously scenic Peak to Peak Highway north of Nederland. There, they’ll find designated campsites where they can set up their tents, build fires in fire pits, and roast marshmallows as the stars emerge in the sky above them. It is an idyllic setting where groups of friends, couples young and old, and families with school-age children can let their workaday lives go for a few days and simply relax.

At least, that’s how it seems upon first glance.

If campers explore just a little beyond their picnic tables, though, their reverie may dissolve into an unwanted dose of reality. In this particular campground, just past the borders of the designated sites sits an orange-and-white trailer. The tires are bald, the windows busted. The area surrounding the trailer looks more like a dumping ground than Colorado’s famed wilderness, with scavenged items that seem incongruous in a forest. There’s a stovepipe, van seats, and a stack of screen doors. The old trailer looks as though it might be abandoned. But when Joe Hall calls out to see if anyone’s there, a raspy voice emanates from the darkened interior. Someone’s been watching.

On a late August day this past year, I visited the Gordon Gulch camping area with Hall, who, like me, lives on the outskirts of Nederland. Hall is six-foot-six and sturdy, with a fondness for fleece jackets and Fjällräven work pants. Two years ago, the 48-year-old was out for a walk on his property, which abuts U.S. Forest Service land in Gordon Gulch. Amongst the pine needles and ground cover, he saw soiled baby diapers lying next to used hypodermic needles. Hall was unnerved, and after hearing that others had had similar experiences he founded Peak 2 Peak Forest Watch. Peak 2 Peak is an all-volunteer watchdog group that aims to maintain safety on public lands and report problems—not unlike the orange-and-white trailer illegally parked in Gordon Gulch—to authorities such as the Forest Service, Nederland Police, and Boulder County law enforcement officers.

Hall and I met at the Forest Service sign near the Gordon Gulch entrance, which lists the rules for the area’s designated dispersed camping: “Limited to 14 days, then must move 3 miles from previous campsite.” Under “Pack your Trash,” the sign reads, “Why no garbage cans? Shortage of funds offers two choices: 1. Close this area to all use. Or 2. To keep it open and depend on YOU to ‘pick up’ the area and haul your trash home!” To the left of us, however, stood a ratty tent, its front flap open. We peeked inside and saw a discarded Coleman fuel canister, a moldy tarp, Converse high-tops, and a windblown pile of marijuana. “I can take you around the forest here and show you easily more than a hundred camps just like this,” Hall said. “And on top of the hundred we can see, there are probably 150 to 200 we can’t, because they’re too deep in the woods or on private property within the forest.”

Why so many people are camping illegally on Colorado’s public lands is not a simple question to answer; however, shifts in the Centennial State’s population may provide some insight. In the most recent estimate from the U.S. Census Bureau, Colorado’s population grew by 1.7 percent, or 91,726 people, in 2016. This influx has led to increased recreational use of Colorado’s public lands and to a proliferation of people experiencing homelessness, in part because of cost-of-living increases. (The New York Times recently reported that over the past five years, the median price of a single-family home in Denver has doubled, reaching about $450,000.) Cathy Alderman, vice president of communication and public policy for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, says that while the population is increasing, services for those experiencing homelessness are not.

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It’s an issue that isn’t just happening here. Cities across the Western United States, including San Francisco, Seattle, and Portland, Oregon, have declared states of emergency over the issue of homelessness. In Colorado, however, the problems associated with homelessness aren’t isolated to the urban areas. Because cities like Denver, Colorado Springs, and Boulder have, within the past decade, outlawed public camping inside city limits, more and more people experiencing homelessness are moving to the mountains. There, Forest Service land is a rent-free option where, theoretically, people are less likely to be bothered by law enforcement officials. It’s happening just a short drive from Denver, in the Roosevelt National Forest near Nederland, and in forests all across the state.

In fact, the Rocky Mountain Region of the Forest Service has one of the worst nonrecreational camping problems in the country, according to a 2015 study from San Jose State University and the Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Research Station. Complicating the issue is the fact that, as in any population, there are people willing to abide by the rules and people who aren’t. Some long-term campers are causing challenges that go beyond the trash, human waste, and destruction of nature present in Gordon Gulch. The current heroin epidemic has led to piles of used syringes cluttering fire rings in public campgrounds. Both Nederland locals and area visitors have reported increasingly uncomfortable encounters while running or hiking near what appear to be long-term camps with inebriated and sometimes violent residents.

And in the past few years, there have been numerous alarming incidents that should give Coloradans extra cause for concern. In 2010, a man wearing a green shirt and camouflage shorts hid near Nederland’s Rainbow Lakes, kidnapped a couple hiking in the area, tied them to a tree, and threatened them with his rifle (one hiker freed himself; the other was released and returned to her vehicle uninjured). In May 2013, a camper at Gordon Gulch named Hilbourne Sutherland slashed a man’s gut and slit a woman’s throat during a late-night argument over the assailant’s dog. Sutherland fled to Boulder, where he was later found and arrested. (Both victims survived.) “It is just the beginning of summer…” read a report in the May 28, 2013, edition of the local Mountain-Ear newspaper. “[Our] campgrounds have been the scene of many assaults…murders…suicides.” Police encouraged recreational campers to pitch tents near campground entrances versus deeper in the woods. “There will soon be a massive influx of out-of-state bad dudes, not just peaceful campers,” then Nederland Police Chief Jake Adler said in the same article. “It is not safe in the campgrounds anymore.”

Joe Hall founded Peak 2 Peak Forest Watch after finding debris associated with long-term campers near his Boulder County home. Photo by Terry Ratzlaff.

Indeed, the issue has not abated. In 2016, two hitchhikers, one of whom was a registered sex offender, started a fire on what they thought was Forest Service land (it was actually private property inside the boundaries of the Roosevelt National Forest), which turned into an inferno that burned eight houses. That same year, human remains—a dirty skull—surfaced at another outdoor recreation spot, on public land, popular with a nature education center (neither the identity of the remains nor the cause of death has been determined). This past summer, two men fought each other with knives not deep in the woods, but at the entrance to the West Magnolia trail system near Nederland. “The Washington office and U.S. Department of Agriculture are well aware of the issues we’re all facing,” says Reid Armstrong, spokeswoman for the Arapaho & Roosevelt National Forests’ Boulder Ranger District. “Issues are different from place to place, but they are supportive of us pursuing the various things we’re doing at the local level, while knowing that we have to be creative and that there is no simple solution.”

Rowdy, often unruly long-term campers in and around Nederland have been a challenge for law enforcement for decades. In the late 1960s and early ’70s, hippies hitchhiked across the country to get to the famously permissive mountain town, where they would panhandle and camp on public lands. One group, which called itself STP, landed in the forest outside Nederland; its members set up a communal camp, partied, and raised hell in town. In 1971, a Nederland marshal arrested a particularly rowdy hippie nicknamed Deputy Dawg, drove him to Oh My God Road between Central City and Idaho Springs, and killed him—an action he revealed to investigators, from a nursing home, in 1997.

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Nothing in that dramatic tale, though, has deterred hundreds—perhaps thousands—more hippies, travelers, anarchists, society shunners, and people with nowhere else to live from setting up long-term, nonrecreational camps in the densely wooded forests surrounding town over the decades. They go to the forest in part because it’s difficult to police.

That’s largely due to a lack of resources—and the vast acreage that needs to be monitored. The Nederland Police Department, for example, has three law enforcement officers; only one or two are on duty at any given time. They patrol within Nederland’s city limits and serve as force multipliers for the Boulder County Sheriff Department within a seven-mile radius of town. Boulder County law enforcement officers patrol a 740-square-mile region, sending two mountain deputies on twice-daily patrols into the hills between Nederland and Allenspark, which is on CO 7 near the border of Rocky Mountain National Park. The Boulder Ranger District has just one law enforcement ranger for a 160,000-acre area that includes seven developed campgrounds, approximately 250 miles of publicly open roads, 227 miles of nonmotorized trails, part of Eldora Mountain Resort, and nearly 40,000 acres of designated wilderness. Boulder County Sheriff Department officers are particularly concerned about what they might encounter when they respond to calls at campgrounds such as West Magnolia, Gordon Gulch, and nearby Ruby Gulch.

“Deputies are patrolling 12-hour shifts all over in the mountains up there, and they’re typically not checking in when they go to campgrounds,” says Boulder County Undersheriff Tommy Sloan. That is, unless they get a call to respond to West Magnolia or Gordon Gulch. “They want dispatch to know when they’re in West Mag and Gordon Gulch so if we can’t raise them, we know where to go looking.”

Sloan says Nederland locals, who simply want the issue to go away, want the Forest Service to either close West Magnolia to camping or come down more forcefully on campers who violate the 14-day rule. But even the latter might not work: A lot of these campers don’t necessarily take misdemeanor tickets seriously, and ticketing often forces people deeper into the forest. “The best thing we can do is keep them where we can see them,” Sloan says. “Push them deeper, and it’ll be a nightmare.”

Everyone needs a place to live, even if “home” means a tarp strung between trees in a public campground—and rangers strive to adhere to a quote from Richard E. McArdle, the eighth chief of the U.S. Forest Service, who described Forest Service land as “The Land of Many Uses. ” That includes two-week camping stays, which are open to anyone regardless of their housing status.

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People experiencing homelessness on public lands, though, can have a greater negative impact on their surroundings—and other people accessing the area—than their counterparts in cities. “Most [homeless] know how to navigate services in cities,” says Hansen Wendlandt, the pastor of Nederland Community Presbyterian Church and an advocate for those experiencing homelessness. But when those services close or someone can’t handle staying in shelters and moves to the forest, he says, “they don’t know how to live.” They often accumulate large piles of trash but lack the funds, manpower, or initiative to dispose of it. Hypodermic needles—left by both short- and long-term visitors—litter areas where people might set up a tent or start a hike. “It’s terrifying,” Wendlandt says, “to think of the first time someone gets hep C from stepping on a needle.”

Some long-term campers are leaving piles of trash, including used hypodermic needles at camping areas like Gordon Gulch near Nederland. Photo by Terry Ratzlaff.

“Little kids are curious by nature,” says Peak 2 Peak Forest Watch’s Joe Hall. “Imagine them roaming a campsite. They see a needle and think, ‘Let’s play doctor.’ ” A local business owner and trail runner says she no longer goes into West Magnolia after encountering a man “clearly out of it, wandering around in boxers” and another “taking a dump on the side of the trail.” Kids from the local high school, running or walking through the West Magnolia campground, have stumbled upon needles and glass bottles. So-called warming fires are often left unattended because, Wendlandt believes, the offending campers don’t realize the potential consequences. “For homeless in any situation, they’re holding on for dear life. You and I come up here for peace; that’s what they come for too.”

I’ve met campers like the ones Wendlandt mentions—those who are just trying to make it through each day—but Hall insists that “bad guys” are becoming more prevalent. According to Hall, these particular people don’t identify as homeless or even “home-free,” individuals who claim to be homeless by choice. “They’re gutter punks, dirty kids, oogles,” Hall says, listing some of the terms that have emerged nationally to describe these populations. “They panhandle in Boulder. They have organized networks. They’re the same kids that’ll show up at festivals with a service dog with three puppies. They don’t have a wristband [to show they’ve paid the entry fee], but you search them and they have $500 and a sheet of acid. They come to Ned because of its reputation, and they’re starting fires, bringing drugs, and leaving needles galore.” Wendlandt agrees that not all nonrecreational campers have the same motivations: “The extreme version of this population is amoral. They don’t take a part in moral systems.”

Hilbourne Sutherland became a prominent example for the worst of the “bad guys” after he stabbed the couple at Gordon Gulch in May 2013. One official said the site looked like a horror movie when he arrived. Law enforcement officers had to evacuate all Gordon Gulch campers—recreational, long-term, and otherwise—because they couldn’t find Sutherland.

It’s incidents like this—and the ongoing threat of violence—that have led Nederland Fire Chief Rick Dirr and his volunteers to sometimes wear ballistic vests when they enter areas like West Magnolia and Gordon Gulch, where they frequently serve as first responders. If they need to go in the dark, they’ll wait for a law enforcement escort. Many times, they’re responding to minor camper-on-camper violence, but Clear Creek County Undersheriff Bruce Snelling, who says he is facing issues like those that Nederland law enforcement officials are dealing with, suggests long-term camps sometimes harbor serious criminals who pose potential threats to everyone. “You get calls from neighboring cops trying to track down people hopscotching from place to place,” he says. “They’re looking for this guy for murder or that guy for sexual assault. These camps can be an underground railroad for them to live off the grid.”

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Photo courtesy of Tracy Ross

Adds Snelling: “You have to be careful. Go to a designated campsite. Consider if it’s run by a ranger or park manager. You want someone who’ll keep an eye on your kids.”

On a rainy Saturday a few months ago, I joined Nederland Town Marshal Larry Johns on a half-day ride-along to patrol the campgrounds on either side of Nederland. We drove northwest out of town, and we saw several Hefty bags filled with trash as we approached the Gordon Gulch access point. “Looks like a good Samaritan was here,” Johns said, “but who’s gonna pick it up?”

We lurched farther down the rutted road and came upon signs of law-breaking campers: We saw abandoned sites littered with garbage and areas where the Forest Service, attempting to mitigate the issue, had turned up ground formerly used for camps, making it uneven and inhospitable so no one could pitch a tent. And we saw the beat-up orange-and-white trailer—still there a month after I’d first spotted it.

We headed back onto CO 72, passed Nederland, and stopped at the West Magnolia campground. After inspecting several camps and finding no issues, we pulled up alongside a red Honda sedan stopped on a dirt road leading back to the highway. The driver was slumped over in his seat. “Is he dead?” Johns asked. When he knocked on the window, the driver jumped. He had been loading a syringe with heroin.

The rawness of the moment was shocking. We were on an isolated road between a cluster of private homes and a picturesque campground frequented by families with young children. From behind us, a former cross-country teammate of my 16-year-old son jogged up, pacing her father. I looked from her to this guy, who had driven out here to stick a needle in his arm, and imagined the what-ifs. What if he’d injected the opiate and simply passed out? What if he’d overdosed and died? What if he’d, in his impaired state, hit the gas pedal and plowed into a teenage girl and her dad out for an afternoon run? It hit me then, viscerally, that our forests have become places where people come not only for quiet and tranquility, but also to do potentially harmful, often illegal things that are easier to get away with under the forest’s cover. I’ve recreated in national forests for four decades, and I’ve never encountered as many needles as I have in the past year.

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Both powerful people and quiet heroes are working to resolve the issue of safety on our public lands, near Nederland and elsewhere in the state. Hansen Wendlandt co-founded an advocacy group, Nederland Interagency Council on Homeless Encampments, or NICHE. Since the organization was founded, he’s worked with the Forest Service, local law enforcement, the Boulder County Commissioners, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Nederland area businesses, state senators, and the United Way to manage, aid, and teach the hundreds of people experiencing homelessness on surrounding lands how to respect the forest.

Meanwhile, Peak 2 Peak Forest Watch founder Joe Hall now has a thousand-plus members and 30-plus volunteers who will work in conjunction with local authorities to report illegal campsites, unattended fires, and deviant behaviors they encounter while patrolling the forests they consider their backyards. Hall has also solidified relationships with local law enforcement, NICHE, and the Boulder Ranger District to embolden his corps. He recently bought 10 vests, emblazoned with the words “Forest Watch,” and “Forest Service Volunteer” patches for them to wear when conducting reporting trips.

This past October, Hall led a Peak 2 Peak field training day with the Boulder Ranger District’s recreation program manager, Matt Henry, and its lone law enforcement officer, Paul Krisanits. At the workshop, volunteers learned to protect nature by observing and reporting irresponsible and/or illegal activity; by showing a presence by patrolling in official vests; by making nonconfrontational face-to-face contact with nonrecreational campers to educate them about Leave No Trace principles; and by actively mitigating impacts through actions like dismantling illegal fire rings.

To that end, they’ll also carry “fire packs”—donated by the Nederland Fire Department and equipped with five-gallon water bladders and sprayers—so they can safely put out abandoned fires they find on patrol. “That’ll be huge,” Hall says, “because last summer, abandoned fires were reported almost every day.” With his 30 or so trained volunteers, Hall’s optimistic about Peak 2 Peak’s potential to make the wilderness around Nederland a little safer for everyone.

Even so, vigilance is the best policy for anyone using public lands in Colorado. On a different day with Hall this past fall, I was acutely aware of where we were, what risks our surroundings posed, and whom we might encounter. After cleaning up a dozen used hypodermic needles—some capped, some uncapped—from a fire ring, we decided to cross the road to check on the old orange-and-white trailer. It was still there, though it had been moved a few hundred feet since we last saw it, and there was a new mural on the side facing the camping area entrance. I wondered to myself if its owner thought the paint job might trick rangers into thinking it was a different trailer. Piles of trash littered the ground in a wide arc. One mound of junk had been mixed with fallen pine needles and covered by a blanket—a bizarre and potentially dangerous blend of the organic and inorganic. “Great,” Hall said. “Just what we need. Now someone’s going to have to clean this up, and what if there are needles?”

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Unlike the first time we happened upon the trailer, I got the distinct feeling that no one was watching me. The site was abandoned. I asked Hall if he thought the man would ever come back to retrieve his belongings, to clean up his mess in the forest.

“No,” Hall said. “He’s outta here.”

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