The Oregon Department of State Lands on Monday posted emergency closure signs at the Stevens Road Tract restricting public access in order to expel long-term campers from the 640-acre property. The campers now have 14 days to leave before they will again be contacted by sheriff’s deputies.
The area will be closed daily from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. to prevent people from camping. Using firearms or driving vehicles on the property will also now be prohibited, according to the state.
Although the land has been open until now for recreational camping (less than 30 days), that is not how people have been using it, according to Department of State Lands Regional Manager Lanny Quackenbush. Most of the camping at the site for the last several years has been for more than 30 days.
Residents of the surrounding neighborhoods use the area to walk their dogs, hike and explore the eight caves on the land. But they’ve been coming across unleashed dogs, trash or people who are sleeping in the early mornings, Deschutes County Sheriff’s Capt. Erik Utter said in a phone interview.
So they call either the sheriff’s office or the state to complain.
Between approximately 20 and 40 people have been camping on the property with tents, makeshift structures and vehicles in various locations, but the numbers change as the people come and go, Utter said.
Not all of the long-term campers are homeless, but some are, he said. Deputies went out last week to tell people at the site that the emergency closure would be occurring.
Then, Shawn Zumwalt, Department of State Lands property manager, on Monday began posting the signs around the perimeter of the tract. Zumwalt said the emergency closure was to help ease the “transient issue” occurring on the state’s land.
On the sheriff’s office’s end, Utter said the goal is not to drive people away from what they consider their homes. Sheriff’s deputies aimed to give people fair warning last week by handing out copies of the signs to people “just to give them a head start,” said Utter.
The sheriff’s office has also reached out to the Homeless Leadership Coalition, the Central Oregon Veterans Outreach, Bethlehem Inn and NeighborImpact to see what kind of help people need to move from the area.
“They know the folks within those circles, so they can contact them,” said Utter. “Typically, you see people from various groups to check on these folks to see what they can do.
“Emergency closure does not mean you are bound to the 14 days,” said Utter in reference to the 14 days’ notice the campers are receiving. “We’re not inhumane. We want voluntary compliance.”
Utter could not say when exactly sheriff’s deputies will be heading out again to crack down on those who have not left yet, but most likely by mid-March.
“Generally, they need some reasonable time to move,” said Utter, who added he expects to see those living on the Stevens Road Tract moving on to a similar piece of land.
According to Utter, most disputes on the Stevens Road Tract have occurred only between campers, not between campers and residents. An emergency call a couple of weeks back led to the sheriff’s office finding that two men had hit a third man with a rock, cutting his head.
On the property, syringes lay in the dirt just a few feet away from the Three Pines cave, which also had pieces of clothing and trash strewn about within it. Still, Utter said drugs are not at the heart of the issue.
“I would say alcohol would be the primary problem,” said Utter. “For people to purchase meth or heroin, they’ve got to have money.”
Utter recalls issues at the Stevens Road Tract really beginning to “ramp up” last summer. Attempts at getting people off the state land have not always worked well. Zumwalt pointed to a short fence installed by the state that was clipped with a wire cutter.
“Typically, it’s helpful to have (sheriff’s deputies) with me,” said Zumwalt on interacting with the campers but added that conversations have been peaceful.
Utter said that occasionally inmates from the Deschutes County jail do trash cleanup on the property, as do other groups. And the sheriff’s office recently handed out dozens of trash bags to campers help them gather litter.
Aside from litter, the sheriff’s office has a larger problem to worry about: fire.
“As we come into the summer months, we always worry about fire,” said Utter.
Evidence appears in the caves, where campers clearly built fires to keep warm in recent weeks.
“For 98 percent of the public to go out and enjoy the lands is going to continue to go on,” Utter said. Hikers and walkers are welcome in the area, as long as it is during the daytime.
A trespassing citation could be given to those who continue to occupy the area a couple of weeks after Monday’s posting, but that is not the sheriff’s office goal, Utter said.
“You can’t just turn your back on them,” said Utter, further explaining that some residents could be suffering from mental illness, addiction or behavioral disorders.