Nation & World

As more and more drifters call national forests home, tensions soar

Darcee Babbitt and her husband, Gerald, have been living this summer outside Nederland, Colo., in the Arapaho National Forest.
Darcee Babbitt and her husband, Gerald, have been living this summer outside Nederland, Colo., in the Arapaho National Forest. The New York Times

Gerald Babbitt lives in these woods, in a pop-up trailer on cinder blocks that he bought for $250. His toilet is a bucket, and when he and his wife need to refill their water jugs, they drive their creaky green Jeep a mile down the mountain and into town. Most people are kind, but the other day someone called them “homeless vagrant beggars,” Babbitt said.

“Yes, we’re homeless,” he said, sitting in the shade of his camper here in the Arapaho National Forest. “No, we’re not vagrants. No, we’re not beggars. We just barely are making it. What you see is by the grace of God.”

To millions of adventurers and campers, America’s national forests are a boundless backyard for hiking trips, rafting, hunting and mountain biking. But for thousands of homeless people and hard-up wanderers, they have become a retreat of last resort.

Forest law enforcement officers say they are seeing more dislocated people living off the land, often driven there by drug and alcohol addiction, mental health problems, lost jobs or scarce housing in costly mountain towns. And as officers deal with more emergency calls, drug overdoses, illegal fires and trash piles deep in the woods, tensions are boiling in places like Nederland that lie on the fringes of U.S. forests and loosely patrolled public lands.

“The anger is palpable,” said Hansen Wendlandt, the pastor at the Nederland Community Presbyterian Church.

Some residents have begun taking photographs of hitchhikers or videotaping confrontations with homeless people camping in the woods and posting them online, including on a private Facebook page created recently called Peak to Peak Forest Watch. Some say the campers have cursed at them for driving past without picking them up, or yelled at them while they were cycling or hiking. They say they no longer feel comfortable in some parts of the woods.

But as a homeless man named Julian, 30, hiked down from the hills and into Nederland one rainy afternoon, guitar and knapsack slung on his back, he said a passing driver yelled at him to get out of town. He said he, too, felt uncomfortable and was heading toward Estes Park, Colo., then on to Oregon. He did not give his last name because he said he did not want friends and family reading that he was homeless.

Wendlandt serves lunch and hands out socks to needy campers every Thursday. But he has stopped provisioning people with blankets and sleeping bags, worried that what seemed like compassion could be exacerbating a problem.

A wildfire in July was a tipping point. Two men from Alabama pitched camp without permission on a privately owned hillside near Nederland, lit a campfire and read their Bibles, they told the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office. The men told officials they put some rocks on the fire to put it out, and though they discussed whether they should do more to smother it, they decided not to.

One smoldering cigarette or lightning strike can ignite an entire hillside in the parched, fuel-filled forests across the West, and officials say the campfire galloped away and burned 600 acres of canyons and forests around Nederland. It destroyed eight homes, including that of a fire captain.

The two men who started the campfire, Jimmy Suggs and Zackary Kuykendall, were arrested and charged with fourth-degree arson.

Citing the fire danger, some residents have asked the Forest Service to do what many cities have done in cracking down on the homeless: impose tighter rules on camping, or ban it in parts of the woods that have attracted the most people.

The Forest Service says it is working with thin law enforcement resources. One officer is assigned to Boulder County, which encompasses Nederland and the Roosevelt and Arapaho National Forests, which dominate the western part of the county. The service is spending more and more of its budget fighting wildfires, and has pared back on filling some law enforcement posts, said Chris Boehm, the agency’s acting deputy director for law enforcement and investigations.

The Nederland fire was one of a handful across the West in recent years that officials have blamed on transient campers. In Anchorage, Alaska, this May, officials said a 2-acre brush fire appeared to start in a homeless camp. In Northern Arizona, where a homeless man was sentenced to a year in prison in 2010 for accidentally igniting a 280-acre wildfire, officials stepped up patrols this summer to look for illegal fires set by people living in the woods.

A 2015 survey of 290 law enforcement officers for the Forest Service found that officers in the Rocky Mountain West and Southwest encountered long-term campers most often. About half of the officers said the number of these long-term campers was on the rise, and only 2 percent said it had declined. (The rest said the number had either largely held steady or fluctuated.).

National parks place strict limits on camping, but in national forests and open spaces managed by the Bureau of Land Management, people can pitch tents just about anywhere camping is not prohibited. Many forests allow camping for only two weeks at a time. In 2015, the Forest Service handled 1,014 episodes related to violations of those rules.

Around Nederland, crime reports, medical emergencies, unattended fires and other calls for help and extra patrols have soared at three Forest Service areas popular with homeless campers. The Boulder County Sheriff’s Office was called there 388 times last year, up from 213 in 2013, and officials attribute some of the rise to Colorado’s reputation as a mecca for legal marijuana, and Nederland’s embrace of retail marijuana dispensaries.

Rick Dirr, the Nederland fire chief, said his largely volunteer firefighters no longer answer nighttime calls in the woods without a marshal or sheriff’s officer as backup.

He said he has faced down one camper who carried a butcher knife, and searched the woods for another man who had attacked his girlfriend. There was the boy who swallowed a heroin baggie, he recalled, and a man who was hit in the head with a shovel.

Others just do not understand how the forest works, he said. He responded to a report of an illegal fire to find a teenage boy and his 8-year-old sister alone at their campsite, bags of garbage everywhere. They and their parents had been living out of their car, and the father asked Dirr when someone would come by for garbage pickup.

“We still don’t have a solution,” Dirr said. “These are the things going on unseen in the woods.”