As tourist season winds down, crews in southwest Washington’s Gifford Pinchot National Forest are just starting to catch up on the mess some visitors leave behind.
One of the hardest-hit areas is the Skate Creek corridor near Packwood. Over the years, about 30 unofficial campgrounds have formed at wide spots along roughly 6 miles of road. The sites are created by Puget Sound-area visitors coming down for brief visits while staying in Ashford, according to Forest Service officials.
“I don’t mean to generalize, but a lot of them have what I call a ‘stadium mentality,’ meaning they bring all kinds of stuff with them to recreate, then dump their trash all over thinking we’ll clean it up,” Cowlitz Valley District Ranger Gar Abbas said.
As a forest technician in the recreation department of the Forest Service, Steve Hoecker sees the mentality firsthand.
In less than an hour on Friday, he and his partner, James King, pulled a tire, a barbecue grill, a table, a house door panel, a homemade toilet and about five bags of trash from one unofficial camping spot along the road.
Despite their efforts, a chair and the other door panel were hung up on a log in the middle of the creek, bits of trash were hidden throughout the bushes and a sizable pile of oyster shells were stacked in the fire pit.
The amount of waste is hardly surprising to either of them, or their co-workers. Officials have mulled for years how to combat the problem of littering and human feces along the corridor, but it’s taken a new urgency recently.
“We’re out here today because several employees brought it up as an issue during a meeting last week,” Hoecker said. “We’re just lucky the campgrounds have grown in size over the years.”
Two employees and one seasonal worker are responsible for maintaining 18 campgrounds and about 550 miles of recreational trails in 575,000 acres of forest lands in the Gifford Pinchot, which makes the 10-mile Skate Creek Riparian Corridor low on their priority list.
Skate Creek Road connects to Highway 706 just outside of Ashford, which connects to the Tacoma and Puyallup areas by Highways 7 and 161.
Because it’s a riparian area, Skate Creek isn’t supposed to be a recreational site.
There are no toilets, fire rings, dumpsters or fees in the area, and thus it has become a relatively popular spot for people looking to camp on the cheap.
For a period of time, grant funding was used for volunteers to visit the area, hand out trash bags and educate people about stewardship, but that money ran out a couple years ago. There was some talk about making it a developed campsite, but that goes against the forest plan.
“That would be enabling the behavior we want to mitigate,” Cowlitz Valley District recreation lead Jack Thorne said.
The Forest Service is leaning toward a requirement that all campers bring some type of receptacle for human waste, be it baggies or portable toilets, but the trash issue is far from resolved.
Thorne and Hoecker hope to create a stewardship group to help maintain the wilderness and educate would-be campers, but it’s still a work in progress – volunteers for the remote area are hard to find.
“I can’t say when or whether we’ll see something,” Thorne said. “Work at securing grant money and organizing groups is ongoing. We’ll keep working toward it.”
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