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Homeless campers damaging protected wildlife habitats, experts say

Daniel Newberry of the Johnson Creek Watershed Council said his staff have seen evidence that campers are relieving themselves in creeks and other bodies of water. He also believes they’re also chopping down trees, presumably to build shelters.

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Environmental experts say, in the case of multiple protected Portland habitats, the damage is done, and it could take years to repair.

They say that’s because, months ago, those habitats went from safe havens for wildlife to hotspots for homeless campers.

One of the newer pieces of property to endure such a transformation is southeast Portland’s Beggars Tick Wildlife Refuge, where at least a dozen tents currently stand.

“We place them on the end. We don't put them in the brush where a rare bird is,” said camper Julie Zornato.

Zornato argued campers in these properties live by a strict set of rules, designed to protect the environment.

Trees, for instance, are not to be touched, and littering will get a person kicked out.

But for Daniel Newberry, head of the Johnson Creek Watershed Council, it’s far from enough.

“I think this is one of the areas where we should not have camping,” he said. “There are a lot of amphibians moving in and out of these areas. During migration season there's a lot of birds.”

And those animals, Newberry pointed out, are easily spooked.

On top of that, he said his staff have seen evidence that campers are relieving themselves in creeks and other bodies of water.

He believes they’re also chopping down trees, presumably to build shelters.

Newberry says, such a practice eliminates shade and can expose fish and other wildlife to dangerous levels of heat and sunlight.

Repairing the damage, he said, could take several years.

“I think we need to step back and have the city council and the mayor take a look at what areas are going to have less impact on wildlife than others,” he said.

KGW reached out to Portland Parks & Recreation, which controls most of these properties.

A spokesman sent this response, via email:

Portland Parks & Recreation is aware that some people experiencing homelessness are living in environmentally sensitive natural areas. It is disappointing that we are faced with such a homeless crisis in our area, and our bureau is but one entity affected by what City Council declared as a state of emergency. We acquire and manage natural areas with an eye on conserving and restoring plant and animal habitats in those sites, and when people are living there they create a situation which degrades natural areas. We may be faced with restoration costs, yet to be determined.

Commissioner Fritz is out of town but I can provide some perspective on her position.

She has historically tolerated some camping on and near the Springwater Corridor Trail, particularly in places and at levels that are not dangerous or destructive to natural resources. For the past year, the Mayor’s Office has taken control of deciding when and whether clean-ups may occur along the Springwater Trail, including Beggars Tick Natural Area. Commissioner Fritz was supportive of the Oregon Solutions/Oregon Consensus process to try and find long-term solutions to the Springwater Corridor camping situation, to the point of providing initial funding for the scoping process out of our office budget.

In the meantime, conditions have deteriorated significantly as that process continues. The parks bureau has sought permission to do some clean-ups along the Springwater Corridor Trail and in nearby PP&R properties over the past several months, with the Commissioner’s support and encouragement. The entrenchment that exists along and near the Springwater Trail is neither low-impact nor acceptable. Commissioner Fritz would like to see the Oregon Consensus process work, and it needs to be concluded with real solutions very soon.

In the meantime, if anyone sees a crime, fires, any emergency on the island (or anywhere else), please call 911. For non-emergency situations, please call the Portland Park Ranger hotline at 503-823-1637.

If a neighbor has any concerns about homeless issues on the trail or elsewhere, they can contact the Mayor's One Point of Contact system.

About the One Point of Contact Campsite Reporting System

The City’s One Point of Contact Campsite Reporting system is designed to simplify those issues by providing one place to easily report issues about campsites. It is designed to provide more rapid, streamlined responses, and will help the City collect information in one place, allowing for better utilization.

An online form on the City of Portland’s webpage (www.portlandoregon.gov/campsites) has been created so that reports can be submitted by members of the community. The information gathered from this reporting system will be entered into the City’s database. Having all of this information in one place allows the City to better prioritize these sites and direct resources in a more efficient way.

Another tool in this new system is the email address reportpdx@portlandoregon.gov. This email account will serve as an interagency coordination hub, and is accessed by several partner agencies. It also provides an interface for following up to reports submitted.

KGW also reached out to Mayor Charlie Hales’ office. A spokesperson there sent this response, also via email:

The mayor recognizes the significant environmental impacts of camping along the Springwater. In an effort to help mitigate those impacts, portable toilets and dumpsters have been placed along the trail. Outreach workers are working to connect people to social services, and are also encouraging campers to appropriately dispose of garbage and waste, and to take care of the environment.

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