Routt County Forest Service officials aren't happy with the growing popularity of one affordable housing "alternative:" People living in the Routt National Forest.
Dan Neilsen, the law enforcement officer for the Routt National Forest, estimated that he has dealt with 70 groups of people who were calling the forest their home for the summer.
"The national forest is their home because, basically, they can't afford to live in Steamboat," Neilsen said.
However, campers are not allowed to sleep more than 14 cumulative nights in one forest district in a 30-day period. After that, they are declared squatters and are breaking the law.
If caught, the campers face a penalty as harsh as a $5,000 fine or six months in jail.
"There's a lot of options for living in Steamboat Springs, but this is not one of them," Forest Service spokeswoman Diann Pipher said.
In addition to going against the intent of public camping in the national forest, which is for recreation, the longer-term forest dwellers create sanitation problems and damage the native grasses in the area, officials say.
Often, latrines are built near squatters' sites, Pipher said.
And the longer people stay, the larger campsites get, causing a greater impact.
The squatters also take up valuable camping spots, Neilsen said. Most of the sites that he has found are places deep enough in the woods to be private, but close enough to town to make commuting convenient.
For tourists, those are the perfect spots because they usually want to come into Steamboat to eat or shop, as well as camp, Neilsen said.
"There's a real increase in this," Hahn's Peak/Bears Ears District Ranger Kim Vogel said.
Last year, Neilsen approached one or two squatters a week, but this year he said it's more like four of five.
Buffalo Pass, Rabbit Ears Pass and the vicinity of the Steamboat Ski Area are all popular spots for squatters because they are relatively close to town, Neilsen said.
However, he's found people people as far out as the Seedhouse Road area, east of Clark.
"It's not that I don't feel sympathetic for these people. I feel for them," he said.
Many of the people Neilsen encounters work in Steamboat; some have jobs that pay well.
However, the long-term campers often tell him they were unable to find a reasonable place to live in Steamboat.
"I have had squatters that I've asked to leave and then, two days later, I find them in another spot," he said.
Vogel understands the problem with affordable housing, but stressed that setting up a residence in the forest is not an option.
Another problem with people living in the forest is that they often abandon vehicles there, Neilsen said.
He believes that this year the Forest Service has had to tow away more cars than in the past.
The costs associated come out of the taxpayers' pockets, Neilsen said.
Though squatting in Strawberry Park has increased this year, Vogel wanted to make clear that some things have improved in the area.
Last year, landowners adjacent to the the national forest complained that campers, many of whom were squatters, had left the public lands a mess.
"This year it's the cleanest that I can remember seeing it," Neilsen said.
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