Homelessness and Colorado’s Public Lands

AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin

Between insufficient budgets and rolled back protections, America’s public lands are under constant threat. Now long-term illegal campers are littering land in Colorado with piles of refuse, including human feces and spent syringes, and endangering other users.

At 5280, Tracy Ross examines how Colorado’s rising cost of living and the outlawing of public camping inside certain cities have led many homeless people to pitch tents in the state’s vast forests. The US Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Region deals with some of the most severe problems associated with non-recreational camping in the entire National Forest system. America’ opioid epidemic has exacerbated these issues, with people heading to the forests not to hike but to take advantage of their privacy. One local man founded a watchdog group to deal with the effects of non-recreational campers. He told the reporter there were a hundred more illegal camps just like the first one they found. “And on top of the hundred we can see,” he said, “there are probably 150 to 200 we can’t, because they’re too deep in the woods or on private property within the forest.”

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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