Forest health and safety

 

Last updated 3/30/2021 at Noon

Bill Bartlett

For the better part of a year, I walked my golden retriever, Robbie, four or five mornings a week to McDonald’s where I could get a good cup of joe for a buck and Robbie, being a registered therapy dog, could work his magic on the usual six or so homeless folk emerging from the forest. They’d be headed to Mainline Market for their daily stock-up.

Our journey began at North Pine and Forest Service Road 100 and ended at a dogleg path on the western edge of Ponderosa Inn. We ended the walks a few months back when the combination of broken glass, food leftovers, and human fecal matter made it too risky or tempting for a retriever.

“Hygiene, trash, and sanitation complaints surrounding homeless encampments in the forest are on the rise, but not necessarily the number of campers themselves,” says Ian Reid, Sisters District Ranger for the Deschutes National Forest. “It’s a complex issue,” he adds and explains deftly the mission and limitations of the Forest Service in policing — my term, not his — the forest.

Reid categorizes technically illegal campers into three groups. Those who choose a lifestyle of living semi-permanently off the grid; those homeless and jobless; and those homeless but with minimum wage or entry-level jobs performing essential work such as food-service workers or motel-room cleaners for a tourism-based economy.

Reid is clear that it is not in the Forest Service charter to pick up trash or manage homelessness. He is also clear that his office wants to be at the table — but not alone — in helping to formulate good public policy that keeps the forest safe and healthy while addressing the underlying causes that drive people to making the forest their home, even temporarily.

The pervasive problem of homeless encampments happens closest to town so that campers can be near essential services of food, water, and — in some cases — in walking distance to a job. To illustrate the complicated nature of the problem, Reid cites a man living in the woods in his Tesla. He’s a displaced high-tech worker whose job was a victim of the pandemic.

As Sisters has grown with housing developments on the forest’s edge, more citizens are aware of the encampments that are often sanitation nightmares. Hikers sometimes have to reroute themselves to avoid encountering sites that they perceive as frightening, especially to solo women joggers. It is not uncommon for these camps to have a tethered or loose dog taking a defensive posture.

The Forest Service has its own law-enforcement officers, armed and with arrest powers, who can take offenders into custody. Nobody will be cuffed and hauled off to Bend unless that person has felony warrants or commits a felony. Violating camping regulations will result in a citation. Campers of any kind cannot exceed 14 days in any one location on public lands, after which they must move a minimum of five miles to a new site.

It is this rule that is the most problematic. Some camping structures such as the one pictured — in place since November — appear not to have an adequate vehicle to move them, which makes one wonder how they got there in the first place. Likewise, abandoned vehicles on public lands is challenging, says Reid.

“We do not have the resources per se to remove them and it’s a process to take legal ownership of vacated property to then be able to dispose of it.”

Sisters Ranger District is 325,000 acres but the complaints center around a few hot spots — just west of North Pine, FS 4606 (Brooks Scanlon Road), Tollgate and Crossroads subdivisions. Reid and some of his team volunteer for occasional cleanup efforts. In their last foray they collected hundreds of pounds of trash, including drug paraphernalia.

There is a hazmat line that cannot be crossed: picking up needles or feces, the latter of which is the most offensive to trail users who otherwise sound sympathetic to the problem and supportive of the Forest Service being handicapped by mandates and funding. The next opportunity for citizens to pitch in and take out the forest trash will be Earth Day, April 22.

The larger opportunity for folks in Sisters to hear and be heard on the issue is May 17, when Reid, FS Enforcement Officer John Soules, Deschutes County Sheriffs Office Lt. Chad Davis, and Mandee Seeley will be part of a virtual panel discussion sponsored by Citizens4Community. Seeley was once homeless in the forest and will put a face on the situation she calls “houseless” not “homeless.”

The larger concern from homeless — or any camping — so close to town is fire, making it imperative that all of us are part of the conversation.

 

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