Inside Colorado’s attempt to police the growing number of homeless camps in national forests

Jennifer Brown
Colorado Sun
U.S. Forest Service Law Enforcement Officer Earl Huie assist putting out the campfire by Regger Rance Jr. at his site in the Pikes Peak National Forest on Tuesday, August 17, 2021, outside Woodland Park. Rance, who lost his home in Colorado Springs due to a fire, was settled with a warning for having a campfire without rings and other violations on Tuesday. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

WOODLAND PARK — 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.

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