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For the week of May 2 through May 8, 2001

Some workers live cheap in forest camps

Express Staff Writer

Living on public lands while working odd jobs in the Wood River Valley is nothing new, and more people are doing it than one might guess.

During summer, when weather and the camouflage of abundant foliage make it easier, between 75 and 150 people take up residence on national forest land in the valley, Sawtooth National Forest law enforcement officer Joe Griffin said.

Thatís as much as 5 percent of Ketchumís population (3,000) or .008 percent of the countyís population of 18,000.

"Itís a problem that fluctuates with the construction trade and the economy in the valley," Griffin said. "Itís mostly service-oriented folks and people working for the contractors. It never seems to go away."

Griffin and Bureau of Land Management outdoor recreation planner Rick VanderVoet speculate that the Wood River Valleyís affordable housing shortage, as well as the demand for menial wage earners, help fuel the demand for long-term public lands camping.

"When you can essentially set up camp for free, thatís obviously attractive to people," VanderVoet said. "It has to do with the booming Wood River economy and affordable housing (shortage). Thatís a common and legitimate assumption."

VanderVoet couldnít estimate the number of people taking up residence on BLM land each summer, but said his agency gets, on average, about six complaints a season concerning long-term campers in the Wood River Valley.

Griffin said that while the Forest Service "keeps pretty close tabs" on the illegal, long-term campers and "catch(es) quite a few of them," some may never be discovered.

The BLM, VanderVoet said, also looks for the long-term campers, but "generally the public notices before we do."

Policing camping limits can be difficult, he said.

The BLM imposes a 14-day maximum stay limit, while the Forest Service imposes a maximum stay of 16 days. Anyone camping at undeveloped campsites on Forest Service land must leave that forest for at least 14 days before the counter is reset.

Some areas, however, have considerably shorter stay limits. In Warm Springs Canyon and Trail, Coral, Lake and Eagle creeks, a three-day camping limit is imposed.

Those wishing to "play the game" can jump between National Forest and BLM land and not overstay their limit on either agencyís land, Griffin pointed out. Campers could also hop between different national forests.

Griffin said thereís no one generalization or stereotype that fits those who attempt to camp long-term on public lands.

"Some have long criminal histories, but some are upstanding citizens," he said.

The impacts of long-term camping to the land, however, can be extreme. Some long-term campers have left formidable amounts of trash at their sites, and some have trampled delicate riparian vegetation.

"We donít have adequate facilities to take care of full-time recreationists," he said.

Disposal of human waste can also be a problem, VanderVoet said.

"The concern we have more than any other is people keeping a clean camp, and health and safety issues," he said.

So, while rents continue to rise and demand for service industry and low-wage personnel continues, long-term camping on public lands will likely continue, despite rules designed to prevent it.

"But thatís just life in a resort town," Griffin summarized.


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