Deschutes National Forest Supervisor Holly Jewkes had concerns about people being cleared from homeless camps in July. She had seen how previous clearings by the city of Bend led to more people living on federal forest land, where restrictions aren’t as severe.
The city of Bend and Deschutes County were days away from removing encampments on Hunnell Road and Juniper Ridge. If a large number of people moved, Jewkes feared, it might increase the risk of wildfires, as summer heat pushed the risk to more extreme levels.
So on July 11, she wrote a letter to Bend City Manager Eric King and Deschutes County Administrator Nick Lelack. She asked them to reconsider the removals and even called their plans “not a sustainable or viable solution.”
The city ultimately opted to push ahead, displacing dozens of people in the camps, some of whom had lived there for years, and the Forest Service said it’s already seeing a small increase in people since the removal. The county has started a process toward removing people living along Juniper Ridge.
Bend City Manager Eric King responded to Jewkes the same day as her letter, saying he understood “the hardship that we all face as public agencies in trying to make decisions on issues related to homelessness that balance all interests.”
But one part of Jewkes’ letter could have seismic impacts on how Deschutes County specifically handles homelessness.
Since the letter was sent, OPB has learned the U.S. Forest Service and Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office are engaged in discussions to determine whether the Sheriff’s Office can legally enforce camping codes — either local or federal — on federal forest land.
In the letter, Jewkes called for greater cooperation between government agencies on the issue. She said the Forest Service does not have the power to remove people living on the land in the same way as local governments.
“I know that the Forest Service cannot address such a complex social issue independently,” Jewkes wrote. “We all need to work together, rather than move the complex issue to another jurisdiction.”
The concerns in the letter — that camp removals shuffle people from one area to another — are common. Service providers, residents and some local officials have said such removals will only lead to more removals in the future.
Kevin Hopper co-founded Public Land Stewards, which hosts multiple events cleaning up waste on national forest land. He said he’s met several homeless people who moved to federal lands after being displaced by Bend officials.
“Every time that there’s a major displacement… we will see an increase (of people) out in the forest,” Hopper said.
The cooperation that Jewkes seeks could take the form of increased law enforcement presence in the Deschutes National Forest. Both the Forest Service and the county have declined to offer specifics, but said they are legally reviewing their options.
The discussions come as governments in Central Oregon crack down on those living outside. Cities and counties have passed new codes restricting camping on public property, leading to clearing hundreds of people from encampments around the county.
Some of those people have traveled deeper into wooded areas and other public lands to avoid future sweeps, Jewkes wrote. That’s led to more concern about waste management in protected areas and risks of wildfire.
Sheriff Shane Nelson has been previously involved in camping code discussions, and a proposed camping regulation in June. It sought to prevent camping within one mile of private property or on federal land that’s within one mile of any urban growth boundary.
The county commission eventually approved a heavily revised code last week, focusing on county-controlled property.
Nelson declined multiple requests for an interview but issued a statement referencing his proposed ordinance.
“I continue to support and conduct research on our proposed version of the county camping ordinance,” Nelson wrote to OPB. “I want to make sure we look into the questions and concerns the Board of County Commissioners have regarding the implementation of the Sheriff’s Office draft ordinance.”
It’s unclear under what laws an Oregon sheriff might be able to enforce camping codes on federal lands.
David Doyle, Deschutes County’s legal counsel, told commissioners on July 26 that the federal government could grant the authority to the sheriff’s office. There have been such agreements in the past — the Forest Service allows the county to enforce its noise ordinance at Elk Lake, he said.
“It starts with the federal government being amenable to providing that level of jurisdiction and authority to the county; they have to make a choice to do that,” Doyle said.