Arcata's Park Rangers Rove The Forests' Far Corners – April 15, 2010

Kevin L. Hoover

Eye Editor

ARCATA – If you use any of Arcata’s wildlands – its Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary, its three forests or any of its 26 parks, you’re likely to meet up sooner or later with one of two men in APD uniform. They would be Park Rangers Kevin Stonebarger and David Miller.

Up until recently, Arcata’s 2,235 acres of forest were without significant patrol or law enforcement, and the results in terms of illegal use and destruction were as inevitable as they were preventable.

When Ranger Bob Murphy retired in July, 2007, he left Arcata’s wildlands more user-friendly than they had been in years.Illegal campers were at a manageable level in both the Community Forest and Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary, and the usual drug and dog violations that rendered Redwood Park off-limits to children and families had been similarly reduced.

But when Murphy left, he wasn’t replaced, due to Arcata Police Department’s chronic understaffing. It wasn’t long before the dull roar of forest abuses again exploded into a free-for-all of illegal camping, rampant off-leash dogs and open drug dealing, the latter especially intense in Redwood Park’s 14th Street parking lot.

The fearful forest conditions frustrated law-abiding citizens, with the Forest Management Committee hearing numerous complaints. Park neighbors, families afraid to let their children use the play area, bicyclists and hikers, among others, all registered dismay at the domination of druggie denizens and campers.

Horror stories were rife. Young people attempting to use the Redwood Park ropes course were awash in marijuana smoke, with one youth group vowing never to return. A bicyclist participating in a forest ride was assaulted by a camper. Everyday hikers had to navigate sketchy campers and unleashed dogs. Meanwhile, the environmental degradation associated with the illegal camps – trash, erosion, tree damage – grew beyond the  City’s ability to deal with it.

Recently, one citizen strongly suggested that forest abuse become a fixed agenda item at every meeting of the citizen-led Forest Management Committee. That demand was declined, on grounds that relief in the form of dedicated forest rangers was on the way.

It’s here. Every day of the week, at least one of two rangers is on duty. And they have a lot of duties.

Arcata Police Department Park Rangers David Miller and Kevin Stonebarger in Redwood Park.

Ranger Kevin Stonebarger

Ranger Kevin Stonebarger has been a Community Forest user for years, cross-country training on the trails with the legendary James Washington. These days, he prowls the same paths in an APD truck, on a QuadRunner and on foot.

Starting duty in October, he said the forest has come a long way back to user-friendliness for those who use it for its intended uses – recreation, study and nature appreciation – rather than camping.

“There was quite a bit of catching up to do,” Stonebarger says. “It took months to get to back to a semblance of normalcy.”

Crusing up Trail 9, he stops to take a side trip up a social trail. It leads circuitously to what at first looks like an idyllic campsite. On closer inspection, though, the forest duff is littered with refuse – cans, plastic cutlery, clothing – and trash stuffed into tree stumps. He calls the spot in to Environmental Services, whose personnel will come out and clean up the pollution as they have so many times before. “The amount of trash in this forest is huge,” Stonebarger laments.

Farther up the main trail, he encounters some horseback riders, and greetings are exchanged. “I love the equestrian people,” he says. “They really want to work on things and keep the forest clean for people.”

At one trash-infested site on the Campbell Creek watershed – an area cleaned out with great effort by Arcata High School students last year and already re-ruined – Stonebarger leaves a business card and written warning on a tent. If the gear is still there the next day, he’ll take it away.

As to the enduring mystery of how campers have the energy to carry weighty equipment and food containers uphill into the woods, but neglect to take the emptied or disused materials out when they leave, he has no answers.

Stonebarger greets equestrians deep in the Arcata Community Forest.

When he encounters campers, Stonebarger says he is “firm and fair,” spelling out the law and its consequences for the abusers. “We have good laws saying what you can and can’t do,” he says. “I’m pretty strict. I tell them, and they go talk to their friends on the Plaza.”

Ranger David Miller

Ranger David Miller became a ranger in February, and enjoys the work. “I go to all the parks virtually every day,” he says.

Like Stonebarger – whom he considers the better ranger, at least so far – Miller has a sixth sense for forest abusers. Reading signs like a scout, he might see a loose dog or something as subtle as a freshly overturned fern along the side of a trail and let it lead him back to a secluded camp.

Within minutes of entering the forest, he has located a campsite with three occupants. Though they protest, per routine, they protest that in fact, they have been cleaning up the area – the abundance of rotting debris all around the area notwithstanding.

Unimpressed, the campers get Miller's standard lecture. “This is a park, not a campground,” he tells the young men. “Do not camp in my town. It’s unlawful and it’s biologically unethical.” On leaving, he tells how he calibrates his admonishment: “The younger they are, the longer the lecture.”

A visit to the “Kids the Woods” campsite, where a small village was located a few years ago, shows an area still battered, eroded and  denuded, but in recovery. Truckloads of trash were hauled from the site after the "kids" abandoned it, and the area is regularly patrolled to prevent a resettlement.

Someone has made a little rock altar of the forest boundary sigh at the far end of Trail 11. Photos by KLH | Eye

On the way out of the woods, Miller encounters a number of hikers, many with unleashed dogs. Though several use the “My dog would never...” rationale, everyone gets a friendly warning. “There’s really no such thing as a non-biting dog,” he says. “Everyone’s dog doesn’t bite until it does.”

And then he comes upon the reason for all the enforcement – a young father walking with a toddler and pushing a baby in a stroller. Struggling up the sun-dappled path, they look happy – and vulnerable. Miller smiles at the family as they make their way up the trail.

“This is what I live for,” he says.


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  1. Mark Cretekos said:

    Old friend of Bob Murphy. Planning a trip to Arcata soon. Does anyone know him? How I may contact the Legendary Lawman?

  2. Mark Cretekos said:

    Old friend of Bob Murphy. Planning a trip to Arcata soon. Does anyone know him? How I may contact the Legendary Lawman?

  3. Mark Cretekos said:

    Old friend of Bob Murphy. Planning a trip to Arcata soon. Does anyone know him? How I may contact the Legendary Lawman?

  4. Mark Cretekos said:

    Old friend of Bob Murphy. Planning a trip to Arcata soon. Does anyone know him? How I may contact the Legendary Lawman?

  5. kevpod said:

    “you talk about how the kids in the woods dont care about the forrest? who were the one encouraging people to clean up their trash on 420 this year? we were handing out trash bags.”

    Yes, someone was doing that at 4/20, as we documented.

    “you say were destructivfe yet it was local law enforcment that cut down three trees on 420 for no good reason. quit calling the beautiful forest “yours”. its everybodys and everbody deserves to be able to live in peace in the forest.”

    If you would like to inhabit a fact-based world as opposed to one based on hippie-dippy folklore, which I kind of doubt, I can offer you factual information on that. The tree-topping to which you refer was performed by the Parks Dept. and had been scheduled months previous. The purpose of it is to reduce fire hazard, reduce hazard trees with dropping limbs and open up the campy to allow in sunlight to stimulate growth of younger and smaller trees, This is done routinely in the Community Forest.

    Second, the original Kids In The Woods left behind truckloads of festering garbage, tents, clothing and human waste. They also severely degraded their campsite with erosion. It is still recovering.

  6. lexa said:

    you talk about how the kids in the woods dont care about the forrest? who were the one encouraging people to clean up their trash on 420 this year? we were handing out trash bags.
    you say were destructivfe yet it was local law enforcment that cut down three trees on 420 for no good reason. quit calling the beautiful forest “yours”. its everybodys and everbody deserves to be able to live in peace in the forest.


  7. TheSwampThing said:

    Thanks Erik.

    I didn’t see large camps with ‘trash stuffed in tree stumps’, litter thrown around to make it hard to clean up etc, no.

    But as a matter of principle I didn’t go about investigating and poking about other people’s campsites, y’know? That would be inviting trouble which I was determined to avoid. Also, I didn’t make homeless friends as those can just tie you down and be a source of trouble if they steal your stuff or have a relapse.

    To be honest, with the question of littering, I would guess it’s about 50/50. There are far more ‘transitioning homeless’ than most people imagine. And these people are more mindful of their surroundings and have more to lose. They are trying to get / keep jobs ..and get a more secure place to stay while living in a tiny tent with no security, no bathtub or shower, no alarm clock/refrigerator/stove, someone can steal all your stuff at any moment, you can be woken up and told to ‘leave’ at any moment, etc. You have to be pretty organized and strong willed to do all that and succeed back into ‘normal’ life.

    As per the stereotype though, many homeless have substance abuse issues. It’s much easier to sleep (knowing someone could attack you..I had trouble sleeping before I was homeless) if you are stone dead drunk. These poor wretches seem to be just trying to survive hour to hour without succumbing to D.T.s (which can be deadly) or withdrawls.
    Littering would seem to be the least of their worries.

    It’s an ugly situation, no doubt about it.
    And people generally have enough on their plate and don’t like actually having to witness other people’s pain. Seeing homeless people struggle and bounce along the bottom of an addiction as they circle the drain is not a cheery sight. Just hurry up and die away from the public eye I guess would be the way some people feel, even if unconsciously.

    Anyways, I’m rambling now so…I’ll just end it here.

    Good day!

  8. Erik said:

    SwampThing, fair point about generalizing…unfortunately, like litterers everywhere, the ones who do create terrible P.R. for those, like you, who don’t. Best of luck to you!

  9. kevpod said:

    Fair enough. A few questions:

    Did you see the kinds of trashed camps described in the story?

    Would you say that your clean-up practices are typical, or the minority?

  10. TheSwampThing said:

    Not sure how someone *discretely* camping in the woods is making it ‘unusable’ for everyone else. I did it (out of absolute necessity I can assure you, it wasn’t fun) and no one was the wiser. In fact, I cleaned up trash every time I entered or exited the forest…and certainly cleaned up after myself as I didn’t want anyone to know I was there.

    I guess not everyone is as ‘respectful’ as I was…but generalizing about ‘campers’ doesn’t help anything.

  11. Erik said:

    What does a rant about “amerika” and “militocracy” have to do with the immediate issue of inconsiderate people destroying, and making unusable for anyone else, a public space for which other people are paying exactly 100% of tax, time, and effort to clean up? Or are you arguing that the Military-Industrial Complex is trashing Redwood Park, assaulting and threatening locals, and scaring kids with their uncontrolled dogs? Let’s just keep our cast of villains straight, here…

  12. Geronimo O Brien said:

    No wonder the forests are full of filth! And pray tell why the hell shouldn’t they be? amerika has fouled the planet with its militocratic serial wars for profit so why be surprised that the lumpenprotoplast at home fouls its nest!

  13. ChongII said:

    My Mexican-American aunties used marijuana poultices for their arthritis,” says Arcata Mayor Bob Ornelas, a ponytailed electrician. Ornelas boasts of running marathon races while high on the weed but insists, “I don’t get stoned that much.


  14. Jollison Gazebo said:

    P.S. It’s not “your” forest. Or Arcata’s. Or the cop’s. The forest exists for its own sake. Kudos to Arcata for protecting it but the forest belongs to itself.

  15. Jollison Gazebo said:

    To base your morality on law is an absurdity. There is nothing morally wrong about sleeping in the woods and I will sleep in the woods wherever my travels take me.

    As for your generalization about what MY life is like, you have no idea. I am here for a brief time to commune with the redwoods, and then I shall move on. You do not know what my life’s purpose is… it certainly isn’t to sit around Arcata on John Shelter’s free lunch NOR is it to go hide out way in the country isolated from a troubled humanity. I am here to help.

    Your hateful generalizations will destroy your humanity.


  16. Bode Tree said:

    All people who camp in our forest are breaking the law.
    How is that for a generalization,Jollison?
    If you want to live wild and free off the grid and stick it to the man, go far away from John Shelters free lunch and do just that.

  17. Jollison Gazebo said:

    And on another note, how does anyone who lives the lifestyle of capitalistic consumption and Earth pollution have the right to tell one who wishes to live a simple life in the woods doing as little environmental harm as possible not to? I understand about the trash and all and it angers me as well but I guarantee that 95%+ percent of Arcata’s residents are doing more environmental damage on a day-to-day basis than a little trash in the woods from campers…

    Really now, think about your lifestyle… if you love the Earth and if you love life and if you love yourself then maybe help work to change things from the global capitalistic economic mode we are under to something actually locally thriving and self-sufficient… and no, I am not talking about shopping at the co-op and buying a hybrid, though perhaps that is a nice start. I am talking about real sustainability here… edible food forests and community gardens everywhere… rainwater collection systems on every rooftop… anything to divorce ourselves from what the mode of life that is destroying the Earth…

    Y’all in Humboldt are tripping about weed legalization ruining the economy, well perhaps it is time to look beyond an export-based capitalist economy to something truly sustainable and set an example for the world…. y’all are known for weed but remember you are also known for progressive values and open minds.

    Look into permaculture and edible food forests if you are interested…

  18. Jollison Gazebo said:

    Not everyone who camp in the woods is a drug adict and not everyone who sleeps in the woods trashes or abuses it. Some people sleep in the woods out of reverence for the sacredness and beauty of the woods themselves. I sympathize for what you say in regard to those who trash the woods, the trash bums me out as well and I clean it up whenever I see it.

    Please just keep in mind not to make such generalizations. Some people who camp out there truly respect the woods and the community.

  19. ChongII said:

    Well the tweakers are down in Eureka area, and we like to pummel them also, cuz they suck, Arcata is Pot City USA and will forever be so, it’s a bunch of stoners up in the woods, alot of the ones I’ve ran into actually kept their site cleaned up, and Stonebarger even said it was one of the cleanest sites he’s seen, but still they had to take it down. There’s are those who actually keep their area clean, but a lot of them trash it, PACK IT IN, PACK IT OUT!!!don’t just leave it.

    Just wait, 4/20 the park/forest is gonna be full of hippies, and stoners alike, thought everybody would be use to this by now, especially around April, just let them have their day

  20. Winston G said:

    We like to pummel the tweaker camps with rocks and steel toe boots to the head, those vagrants don’t even know what hit them. Yeeee Haaaa Cowboys rule McKinleyville!!! THAT’S HOW WE PLAY UP HERE BUMS.

  21. Rover said:

    Why can’t the people in obvious violation of the rules & regulations governing the park and community forest be given citations or tickets? Perhaps a few outstanding warrants would help curb the appeal of trashing our community.

  22. Mudflat Matt said:

    Great article, thanks for publishing it. The community forest is truly a beautiful place, it just doesn’t make any sense that people can trash it like they do. Also, Christine Walters disappeared from a hike in the community forest in November 2008 and is still missing.

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