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Friends of Fall Creek Watershed and Five Rivers Group clean up another abandoned campsite

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By BEN OLSON/for The Herald  —  I spent the better part of a beautiful spring day in the Cascades picking up the debris that was once part of somebody’s life. I didn’t know the people whose belongings I was cleaning up. However, there were ample clues about them. Strewn about an idyllic campsite twenty-five miles up Fall Creek were the remnants of a life lived in an RV a long way away from the rest of civilization.

A family had lived there. The clothes they had once worn, the games and toys that had entertained them, the books that they had read, and the containers of food that they had planned to eat were all there to see.

These people didn’t make the mess that I was cleaning, but they were still responsible in their own way by not removing what they brought into the forest. “Pack it in, pack it out” means just what it says. They probably were good people, down on their luck. Homeless, yet owning a gas hog of a motorhome that, for $30 worth of gas, could drive a mile past the end of the pavement and set up a permanent camp.

Many don’t want to be found

It should be noted that the last time the RV was licensed was in 2012. Non-recreational campers is the term the Forest Service uses, and there are thousands of people who fit that description, living out in the woods. Most are close enough to towns like Oakridge or Lowell that they can make the necessary trips to the grocery store. Others don’t want to be found because they’re making meth or growing pot. These people leave a big mess 100% of the time.

This is only speculation on my part, but I believe these folks had to leave in a hurry last August as a fire blazed along parts of Fall Creek. Maybe the RV wouldn’t start. Maybe the flat tire that I saw on the front end was the reason they left it. But once they left the scene, their possessions were now in the hands of opportunists who had no concern about anything but their own gain. The cans and jars of food that could have kept the family comfortably fed for months now became projectiles to break out all the glass in the vehicle.

Looters do the initial pick-over

Everything is pulled outside to be inspected in the light, to see if there is anything that could be resold for a little money. The radiator and catalytic converter are pulled out. The refrigerator and generator are taken, and the looters are on their way. There will be others that stop and kick through the garbage to see if something of value was missed. Now there’s four tons of human impact laying in between the road and the creek in the Willamette National Forest.

If it were left alone, it would slowly rot away and get swallowed up by the elements and get covered by the forest detritus. Not in our lifetime, though. 

Why am I out here cleaning this? Well, who else is going to do it? There are concerned citizen groups in our area who just can’t abide by it all.

The Friends of Fall Creek Watershed and Oakridge’s 5 Rivers Group identify the most egregious sites. They then get volunteers together to help load up the garbage. In many cases, they disassemble vehicles and take them to a proper disposal area. Despite the fact that I spent hours picking up trash, it was not a wasted day at all. There was the beautiful drive to and from the site and wonderful conversations with the other volunteers. Most of all, there is the satisfaction of removing an eyesore from the beautiful forest.

Neither group receives outside funding

Moreover, the groups I mentioned above pay their own dumping and disposal fees. There is no federal, state, county, or local funding for any of the work that gets done, and it is entirely volunteer labor. The groups have been trying to engage the Forest Service to be more proactive in managing the National Forest that surrounds us. The intent is to keep from having so many sites that need attention.

If you are interested in volunteering your time or donating money to help pay for disposal fees, please contact the Friends of Fall Creek Watershed at fofcw.org. They work in cooperation with Oakridge’s 5 Rivers Group.

Ben Olson, musician and Oakridge Resident, with his standup bass. Ben Olson photo

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