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Stealing home

Erik Vienneau

When Rob Blakely first set up his at his campsite in the Vail Valley, he chose it for its beauty and its convenient proximity to work; it was secluded, with a gorgeous view of the Eagle River. He was soon told to move by forest officials because his intent was to reside on Bureau of Land Management land.His second site was particularly lush in this summer of drought. It was only a minute-long, barefoot-walk to the river to wash up and brush the teeth. He was tossed from that spot because he was rooting down on land leased by 4-Eagle Ranch and owned by the Denver Water Board.This time, Blakely (not his real name) is taking a more stealth approach to camp-site selection. Because, to put it bluntly, “moving campsites every few weeks, when your only mode of transportation is a bike, is a pain in the ass.”So now Blakely’s site he wouldn’t let us report exactly where it is in the Vail Valley is well camouflaged with old branches and leaves. He never uses any thing more than a duct-tape-covered headlamp at night and covers the trail to his secret site which comes complete with separate kitchen, sleeping and bathing areas better than a Cold War-era spy.Blakely has clearly defined his enemies.They are the Forest Service and BLM officials looking to enforce regulations designed to stop squatting on federal lands. Enforcement officers cite sanitation issues, erosion and destruction of public lands as good reasons for their zero-tolerance squatter policy. Blakely draws his battle lines around his right to “enjoy public land.”Recreational users are limited to 14 consecutive days of camping on National Forest Land, while BLM stays are often halted at seven. If the intent of the camper is to squat, than those rules don’t apply.Once Blakely was judged a squatter with intent to reside on public land, his problems began.He’s not only struggled with the legal and logistical challenges of being kicked out of two campsites since his battle to live in the great outdoors began eight weeks ago, he’s also struggled with a social stigma.He’s been called a bum and a homeless person.”A lot of people think that I am just living outside to avoid paying rent for the summer,” Blakely says. “And, that is part of it, but not even close to the first priority.”It may not be a priority, but the average rent in Eagle County hovers around $941 per unit, earning Blakely the title of rent dodger from some of his fellow service workers.The second time Blakely was asked to move he says it was a fly fisherman who ratted him out. “There seems to be a little animosity between us,” he says. “I think they see a nice campsite set up and feel a little jealous.”Blakely isn’t the only one who is attempting to skirt Forest Service officials in the woods surrounding Vail this summer.”I lived in Chicago and couldn’t live outside,” says Charis Rose, who is spending the summer in the forest out by Wolcott with her boyfriend, Mike Palladino. “Like many other transplants, I came here for the natural beauty and want to take advantage of it.”She admits that the Vail Valley’s high cost of living has plenty to do with the couple wanting to shack up under the stars this summer. “If you can avoid paying Vail rent prices for a summer,” she says, “then you should. The rent prices have forced us to take advantage of where we are.”Blakely says it’s “the little things” that make living outdoors in the Vail Valley so intriguing to him. Each night he watches the moon travel across the horizon, taking the time to observe the breeds of birds and bugs near his site, until the sound of the river lull him to sleep. He says he’s had tons of time to think deep thoughts. But he also spends plenty of that time worrying about Tom Healy, enforcement officer for the White River National Forest, discovering his tree-lined paradise.If caught, Blakely faces up to a $5,000 in fines and up to six months in jail. But, the odds are Blakely won’t face such stiff punishment or get caught at all.Of the approximately 150 squatters Healy busts each year, only a few are hauled into federal court. Most escape with a $75 ticket and a request that they move at least 30 miles from the site for at least 30 days.Blakely says the 30-mile rule is too tough. Especially when his only mode of transporting all his camping supplies and getting to work is a mountain bike. “The 30-day and 30-mile rule seems crazy to me,” Blakely says. “I used to have alternate spots to help my peace of mind, but now I’ve run out of alternate spots. If I get kicked out here, I’ll be looking long and hard for another one.”Sue Froeschle, spokeswoman for the WRNF, doesn’t have much sympathy.”We have a real issue with squatters,” Froeschle says. “They create more damage than they think.” She says that more traffic to one spot causes erosion, while sanitation issues are caused by the lack of fresh water and septic facilities in squatting situations.”There’s just too much damage done to the land,” she says. “It’s simply not our role to provide a housing situation for people trying to work in the community.”Froeschle says that if enforcement officers perceive that a site is being used as a place of residence, even if just for just one night, then that’s not a legal use of campground or a dispersed camping area and the violator will be asked to move within 24 hours.But Blakely, who calls himself a “steward of the land,” says he’s doing his part to take care of the land he camps on.He says he cleaned up after an irresponsible camper who left a bed frame and mattress, rug, tent and a bunch of trash near his first campsite. He spends hours cleaning up the tangled fishing lines and trash of less responsible forest users.Unfortunately, good practices like Blakely’s are rare, according to officer Healy.”Most people only see their little world,” Healy says. “They don’t see the big picture; they don’t see the cumulative impact of hundreds of people doing what they are doing.”He says most violators say they are packing out their garbage. “The sad truth is most don’t,” he says. Just two weeks ago he and a dozen workers spent eight hours picking up everything from clothing and newspapers to plastic tarps and sleeping bags from abandoned squatter sites. “You name it, it’s been left behind,” Healy says.The spiraling nature of squatting is the biggest problem leading to destruction of National Forest land, Healy says.”I tell people that if they want to live in tent all summer, they should find someone with private property and get permission and stay there,” Healy says, adding that “even that usually gets out of control. The abandoned cars accumulate and people start building structures with plywood, insulation and furniture.”In a recent case in Breckenridge, more than six squatters had gathered on about an eighth of an acre of private land bordering National Forest.”Everything was cool, until it got out of control,” Healy says.So if Healy has reason to believe you’re squatting furniture, 12 house plants and huge piles of clothes have been some recent tips then he’ll tell you to hit the road. But, the odds of getting caught are slim, he admits, if violators camouflage their sites and camp as remotely as possible.”I confront about 150 squatters a year and have no doubt that a lot of other folks are getting away with it,” he says. Healy is the only enforcement officer for 850,000 acres of National Forest, and he admits that he “could use a little help.”


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