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By Jim Cornelius
News Editor 

Challenges of forest-dwelling

 

Last updated 10/18/2022 at Noon



Ian Reid, Sisters’ district ranger, knows that when he takes his seat on the “Houseless in Sisters” panel on Thursday, October 20 at Sisters Fire Hall, he’ll be on the hottest seat in the house.

It’s his agency, after all — the U.S. Forest Service — that is directly responsible for managing camping in the forests surrounding Sisters. And that’s where the unhoused of Sisters Country live.

“It’s a complicated role,” he acknowledged in an interview with The Nugget.

The primary mission, he says, is to maintain “a safe forest and a healthy forest.”

The Forest Service is tasked with enforcement of rules and laws governing national forests, minimizing damage to resources, while at the same time ensuring “equitable access” and the sharing of public lands.

The increase in “non-recreational camping” — people living in the forest on a permanent or semipermanent basis — poses challenges for Forest Service personnel. Some local residents have become frustrated with the Forest Service insisting that Sisters Ranger District should be enforcing its own regulations, requiring that a camper must move after 14 consecutive days and prohibiting camping in the Deschutes National Forest for more than 28 total days in a calendar year.

According to Reid, that’s not as straightforward as it might appear.

“Getting people to move is very challenging, especially when they don’t have the means to do it themselves,” Reid said.

The District has required campers to move, Reid said, estimating that “for every RV seen, we’ve probably moved five.” But he has heard the public complaints that they’re not doing enough to manage the problem.

Reid notes that the enforcement mechanism for the 14-day and 28-day limits is a ticket.

“Enforcement is a violation notice,” he said.

His personnel cannot “evict” people from the National Forest.

“We don’t have the authority to do sweeps, to remove people from the National Forest,” he said.

To actually evict a person, a magistrate would have to officially “trespass” that person from the forest — an act Reid has seen only once in his Forest Service career.

“On top of that,” he said, “we understand that it is not a crime to be homeless, that people have to live somewhere and a large proportion of these people are working in the surrounding area and… contribute to society in meaningful ways.”

Reid acknowledges that the community has legitimate safety concerns. There have been reports of people feeling threatened or intimidated on trails in the area. Reid notes that if someone is actually threatening, that is subject to law enforcement action. Dumping and other resource damage gets priority attention, he said.

Asked about the possibility of creating buffer zones where camping is not allowed around sensitive areas — such as North Pine Street and Peterson Ridge Trail — Reid said, “Different forests all over the country are looking at ways to manage dispersed camping. I don’t know that that’s where we want to go here.”

He said that if you provide a buffer zone in certain areas, that opens up the forest for requests for buffers elsewhere — around Crossroads or Tollgate, for example. That could end up closing large areas of the forest to camping, which might be harmful to the community. After all, many people come here for recreational camping, and camp out in the forest during Rodeo and other events.

Fire is a major concern, Reid acknowledged. He notes that the Ranger District patrols aggressively during times when fires are restricted. And areas around town are the most accessible to fire equipment and have received the heaviest treatment to minimize risk of an escaped campfire creating a fire that gets out of control.

Reid notes some recent “wins” — finding housing for people who have been living in the woods and working in Sisters, and volunteer efforts that have cleaned up sites and removed abandoned RVS.

He hopes that the Town Hall this week will create an opportunity for more such wins, with “a shared understanding of the community of how complicated the issue is and ways the community can help.”

The Citizens4Community Town Hall “Houseless in Sisters” is set for Thursday, October 20, 5:30 p.m. (discussion starts at 6 p.m.) at the Sisters Fire Hall community room, 301 S. Elm St.

Author Bio

Jim Cornelius, Editor in Chief

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Jim Cornelius is editor in chief of The Nugget and author of “Warriors of the Wildlands: True Tales of the Frontier Partisans.” A history buff, he explores frontier history across three centuries and several continents on his podcast, The Frontier Partisans. For more information visit www.frontierpartisans.com.

 

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