Forest thinning reveals forest dwellings

 

Last updated 1/18/2023 at Noon

BILL BARTLETT

A portable toilet set up for the use of forest dwellers has become a pit stop for travelers along Highway 20.

If you have driven on North Pine Street, or the adjacent FS 100 Road spur, or along Highway 20 just west of the city limits, and the forest looks like somebody came in and mowed it one day — they did. Not in one day of course, but over a period of weeks. Suddenly the forest appears wide open, manicured even. The trees seem taller, more stately.

The intent is to reduce fuels — dense underbrush — and is part of an ongoing, multi-year, forest-wide strategy to mitigate fire risk. The section closest to Sisters just happened to come up this January in the schedule.

Dan Gordon, driving in from Camp Sherman, had only one complaint: “You sure can see the homeless encampments more clearly now. This is starting to look more like Bend or Salem.”

The clearing made it possible for his wife, Geri, to see the new fencing going up on the forest side of Best Western Ponderosa Lodge.

“Is this to keep the homeless from camping on their property?” she asked, as their car was being refueled at Mainline Station.

In fact, it is, partly. Staff told The Nugget that guests were complaining about the unsightliness of the half dozen camps within view of their windows, one of which features a sizable makeshift tent homestead for a pair of houseless campers who took up residency about five months ago — Brian and JD, “as in Jack Daniels,” JD said when we met the pair.

Forest dwellers without transportation congregate in this area, given its proximity to food and other services. If they weren’t actually camping on Ponderosa Lodge’s property, they were using it as a shortcut to stores across Highway 20. The area has long been a source of irritation, especially by residents along North Pine Street and the neighboring ClearPine subdivision of 101 homes.

Some Ponderosa Lodge guests can also see the recently installed portable toilet, as can observant drivers on Highway 20. The portable is the gift of an anonymous citizen trying to improve the lives of forest dwellers. The Forest Service allowed its siting on a trial basis. An unintended consequence of the gesture is the large numbers of truck and delivery drivers and other Highway 20 motorists who know of its existence and take advantage of its location.

It now has to be serviced more often, increasing its cost.

The Forest Service’s prevailing preference is to have many of the houseless grouped in smaller, concentrated areas, where it is easier to monitor their activities, rather than have them dispersed deeper or more widely in the forest, where careless actions, such as illegal campfires could pose a greater risk.

Seemingly a practical strategy, it comes with costs, like the fencing for Ponderosa Lodge and what some neighbors perceive as blight. There is a chorus of concern: “If we build it, they will come,” a reference from the popular movie “Field of Dreams” starring Kevin Costner, is oft heard by passersbys.

One good citizen is supplying firewood to some of the houseless to help them keep warm, and another attempted to provide hot soup off the back of her pickup, but had so few takers that she directed her good intentions to other means.

To alleviate the amount of discarded plastic water bottles, a group of volunteers is providing refillable water flasks for the campers, whose numbers are thinning. The extreme cold in late December reduced the number of known houseless by a little more than half as they sought shelter elsewhere.

The Gordons challenged that, saying, “Just look around. There are tents and rickety RVs everywhere.” County health and Forest officials say that many of what the Gordons and others are seeing are actually sites abandoned by dwellers driven out by the near-zero temps. It is unknow if they will return to resume occupancy.

Next week, January 24, The Homeless Leadership Coalition will conduct their annual Point In Time count of the homeless in Central Oregon. Trained volunteers will take to the forest in hopes of obtaining a reliable estimate of the houseless in Sisters.

There is growing concern that as Bend takes more assertive action in minimizing and policing homeless camps, Sisters will see more displaced campers settling here. David Fox, who does outreach for Deschutes County in the Sisters area, has not seen that yet and doesn’t expect it . See related story, “Houseless have professional advocate”.

 

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