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Homeless campers in Colorado’s national forests increase during pandemic

Ranger sees illegal sites proliferate in the Pike National Forest
U.S. Forest Service law enforcement officer Earl Huie assists putting out a campfire with Regger Rance Jr. at Rance’s campsite in the Pikes Peak National Forest on Aug. 17 outside Woodland Park. Rance, who lost his home in Colorado Springs because of a fire, was given a warning for having a campfire without rings and other violations. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun)

WOODLAND PARK (AP) – The campfire is smoldering and a dozen hamburger buns are scattered in the dirt along the edge of the campsite as Earl Huie approaches a 1984 Dodge pickup that he’s seen before.

Huie, a U.S. Forest Service law enforcement officer, has already warned this camper that it’s illegal to live in the national forest. The limit for recreational camping is 14 days. So Huie, in a bullet-resistant vest and with a gun on his hip, pulls into the dispersed campsite in the Pike National Forest to again tell the man it’s time to move on.

Huie immediately notices two fire pits, illegal because they don’t have rings to contain them, and a bong made from a plastic bottle smoking on a folding table. Regger Rance, 54, in cut-off jean shorts and Crocs, tells Huie the only weapon he has is the knife on his belt and insists he didn’t realize he was doing anything illegal.

“I just thought you could camp out here,” he says, surrounded by pine trees, just off a dirt road.

It’s one conversation in a long day of policing illegal camping in Colorado’s national forests, a problem that has increased during the pandemic as more people are out of work and without homes.

The U.S. Forest Service has seen an uptick, too, in the number of abandoned campsites. Transient campers move on with only what they can carry in a backpack, leaving behind garbage and clothes, food rotting in coolers, tents and even fifth-wheel trailers and pop-up campers.

Huie’s patrol up mountain roads is similar to the work of outreach workers who visit homeless encampments in Colorado’s cities, except he’s more likely to encounter aggressive dogs, unsecured firearms and, on a recent day, a teenager left alone in a pop-up camper.

A few miles outside of Woodland Park, along Rampart Range Road, nearly every camper that Huie approaches has overstayed the bounds of the law. He knows by the well-worn path that their vehicles tread in the campsite driveway, bouncing in and out to go to town for work or supplies. He can tell by the way a campsite is cluttered with life’s belongings instead of just enough for a weekend getaway. In many cases, he’s seen them before.

“I’d say 80% of the time, it’s people who are just down on their luck,” Huie said. “The other 20% of the time, you can tell something is wrong, like mental illness.`”

Rance has lived in Colorado forests for seven months, usually near Woodland Park or next to Mount Herman, outside Monument. He’s from Louisiana, where his house burned down last October while he was at a soccer game, he said.

Rance moved to Colorado Springs to live with his son, daughter-in-law and new grandchild, but they fought and he had to move out after Thanksgiving. At Christmas, he was without a home and living out of his truck, a piece of carpet providing little cushion as a bed. Rance strung a blue tarp over the top of the Dodge, staking it into the dirt to provide cover from rain.

He knocks on doors in town, offering to rake yards or shovel snow to earn cash, and he lives mostly on canned chili and soup. That morning, Rance opened his eyes at dawn in the bed of the truck and saw a bear sniffing near his campfire. Over the months, he’s also seen plenty of deer, turkeys and a black squirrel.

“I love the outdoors, but it does get old. It’s a lot of work. I’ve been here since the wintertime, too,” he said, pointing toward his bed. “I was like a solid block of ice back there in the wintertime.”

Huie could ticket Rance for living in the national forest, having marijuana on federal land and the illegal campfires – citations that would come with more than $1,000 in fines. Instead, the law officer asks Rance if he has family he can live with or a plan to find housing.

“Let’s talk about your next move,” Huie says.

“I got a couple hundred dollars but my tires aren’t so good,” Rance says. “I’m fixin’ to head east. I can make it.”

Living out of his 1984 Dodge truck, Regger Rance Jr. explains his situation to the U.S. Forest Service law enforcement officers while camping illegally in the Pikes Peak National Forest on Aug. 17 outside Woodland Park. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun)

Rance promises to move on, maybe back toward Louisiana, and Huie lets him off with a warning, but not until the Forest Service officer lugs a 5-gallon jug of water from his truck and pours it on the fire, making the hot coals hiss. Rance helps turn the fire to a mud pit by stirring it with what he calls a watermelon hoe that he keeps in his truck.

“We all get hard times,” Huie says. He figures Rance has no money to pay any fines anyway, and is satisfied as long as he vows to “get off the Pike” and clean up his campsite, including the buns he threw on the ground to attract birds.

“It will look like I’ve never been here,” Rance says.

A graveyard of campers, trailers and stoves

The first stop on Huie’s recent patrol was an abandoned campsite just off the side of Rampart Range Road. A crumpled tent. An olive jar with only the brine. A laundry basket full of clothes. He pulled out a toddler-size red puffy coat, pondering whether a child lived in the campsite.

Huie picked through the belongings looking for anything to identify the people who left them behind, finding nothing. Later, the Forest Service or a nonprofit group called Focus on the Forest will bag up the trash and take it to the dump.

A second abandoned campsite Huie and Forest Service patrol captain Lynn Wubben found during their daylong patrol was empty save for a staked tent containing an inflated air mattress, two camp chairs, a bucket and a cooler neither of the officers wanted to open. The campers likely left in a rush after finding a warning a week earlier that an officer had placed in a plastic bag and zip-tied to the tent.

Just outside the Pike National Forest, the Forest Service has a graveyard of abandoned pop-up campers and fifth-wheel trailers, chairs, ovens and metal scraps that were pummeled with bullets during target shooting.

A man with California plates left behind his beat-up motorhome, covered in galaxy and UFO drawings and painted with the word “DARE” across the front, after Huie told him he could no longer live in the forest. A decent RV also sits in the junkyard – the Forest Service can’t find the rightful owner because its license plate was fraudulently registered to a man who was the victim of identity theft.

The eight trailers and campers, dozen or so stoves, and mounds of metal represent about a year’s worth of forest cleanup. Eventually, unless it’s claimed, and that hardly ever happens, a nonprofit comes to collect the junk.

Huie is finding people who are living in RVs and pop-up campers more often than he used to before the pandemic. People who couldn’t afford rent or lost their homes are parking campers in the woods just outside town, and in some cases, commuting to their jobs, he said. The law says they cannot live in the forest – and cannot camp recreationally for more than 14 days within a 20-mile radius.

“What I try to do is get their story, say, ‘Hey, it looks like you’ve been here for awhile,’” Huie said. “A lot of them are very understanding and they will eventually move on. But there are some that have some kind of mental illness or something like that.

“If they are living out there, they get zero days. But I say, ‘Look, I understand, let’s treat this as a two-week trip. Once that two weeks is up, I need you to get off the Pike.’”

Recently, he warned a couple without a home who had been on the road since last July that their time in the Pike was up. He tried to track down an older woman who had been living alone in her tent for more than a month. She wasn’t in the tent, and left honey and bread sitting on a folding table just a few feet from her zipper, so Huie planned to return another day and offer her phone numbers to shelters in Teller and El Paso counties.

Corina Cox and Chris Long, along with their dachshund mix, Pokey, have been living out of their Kia sedan and a tent for 13 months. Their campsite was tidy, with a large blue tarp serving as an entry rug. But their on-the-road lifestyle, which began after Long lost his job and his son got involved with a gang, causing them to move out in fear for their safety, is getting old.

“We’re ready to get out of it,” said Cox, who has been applying for jobs and hoping to find a house. For the short term, they were thinking of moving camp to somewhere near Cañon City.

'My senses were up pretty high’

Huie, along with one other officer who patrols for illegal camping part time, is responsible for cracking down on forest dwellers in 251,000 acres around Pikes Peak. He finds most of them along the road, but treks deeper into the woods when hikers, mountain bikers or firefighters report illegal campsites. Huie, who has a four-wheeler and a side-by-side, looks for well-worn trails leading off road. But he doesn’t trudge in alone.

“That’s when you want to be on high alert,” said Huie, a veteran of the Iraq war who did one season as a firefighter before going to federal police training in Georgia about three years ago. “If they are not wanting to be found, they could be hiding something. They could have a warrant for their arrest. They could be using drugs.”

Campers in Pikes Peak National Forest, Corina Cox, left, and Chris Long, with their dog, Pokey, chat with U.S. Forest Service law enforcement officer Earl Huie on Aug. 17 outside Woodland Park. Their on-the-road lifestyle began after Long lost his job. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun)

Only a few months into the job, Huie spotted a white van beside the road and followed a trail into the woods, where he found a family of three that he would later learn were part of the right-wing anarchist movement “Sovereign Citizens.” The campsite was not newly set up, evidenced by a pile of stacked wood, a cooking area and two tents, one for the husband and wife and the other for their 16-year-old son.

Huie introduced himself, and the father “basically told me to f off” and refused to provide any identification, Huie said.

“My senses were up pretty high that day,” Huie said, recalling that officers were also searching for a woman missing from Woodland Park.

The man admitted he had loaded guns in his tent, cussed and refused to cooperate. The wife was recording Huie with her cellphone. Then the man tried to go inside his tent.

Huie pulled his Taser.

From the other side of camp, the teenage boy walked toward him with a rifle slung over his shoulder.

Huie ended up defusing the situation and writing the family citations for living in the forest and harassing an officer. But they never appeared in court and now have warrants out for their arrest nationwide.

“It was pretty dicey,” said Huie, who wears a body camera. “On the video, you can hear my emotions coming up.”

Shortly after, Huie’s boss signed him up for crisis intervention training, which is required by many police departments but not by the Forest Service. He joined other law officers in Douglas County as actors pretended they were suicidal and barricaded in a bathroom, or struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder. Officers at the training attempted to calm them down.

The training, Huie said, comes in handy pretty much every day in the Pike.

'Not like homeless homeless’

The dogs were in a frenzy, shaking the pop-up trailer and snarling out the holes in the window screens. Huie set them off when he pounded on the door and announced, “Forest Service law enforcement.”

A 15-year-old girl stepped out, slipping through the door to keep her two barking dogs from bolting out.

The girl said her mom and her boyfriend had gone to Colorado Springs for the day, that the three of them, plus the golden retriever mix and a black Lab, live together in the pop-up camper. They moved to Colorado from Ohio four or five years ago and have been without a home since then, she said.

“We’ve just been living around ever since,” she said. “Not like homeless homeless, but in our car and staying with friends, stuff like that.”

She used to go to online school, but isn’t going right now, she said. Her teeth were in need of a dentist. She was shaking with nerves as she gave her mom’s name and birth date. She said they had lived there “for a week, maybe a little more,” but Huie could tell by the well-worn driveway that it was much longer.

When the girl, in a Beatles T-shirt and ripped maroon jeans, reached for the door of her camper, Huie shouted, “Stop!” He asked whether she had any weapons inside. Then Huie’s patrol partner, Wubben, told her not to open the door because of the dogs, who were still barking ferociously and jumping on the inside walls.

“They are protective,” the teen said. “We’ll just keep them in there.”

Huie reported the situation to El Paso County authorities, hoping a child protective services caseworker would check on her. He feared, though, that the whole family would pack up and move out as soon as the girl told her parents he was there asking questions about where they lived.

He was right – an El Paso County sheriff’s deputy who went to the campsite later that evening found it empty.

“These are the kind you take home,” said Huie, who has a daughter about the same age as the girl left alone at the campsite. “It’s hard to think about.”

In a few days, Huie will head back up the same dirt road, checking for Rance, who promised to clean up his hamburger buns and move east, and the couple with Pokey the puppy who said they would move along to Cañon City, and the old woman who left out her bread and honey.

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.