On Earth Day and any day, new Woodland Park group acting as forest guardians

~ by Seth Boster ~

WOODLAND PARK – ( source: Colorado Springs Gazette)

Avid outdoorsman Shawn Nielsen is spending another afternoon to drive his Dodge Ram into the Pike National Forest. He rumbles over the winding dirt paths in search of the enemy.

He stops at a remote patch off Rampart Range Road, in the high woods beyond town. He steps out from the truck, the boots under his tattered blue jeans hitting the ground as he sighs. “It’s not hard to find this,” he says.

The stuff spans the hillside, glistening in the sun: shards of glass, perhaps from a computer monitor, judging from the wiring and keyboard pieces all about – shot up by a shotgun, perhaps, judging from the shells scattered with the Mountain Dew cans, the Sweet Tarts box, the Pabst Blue Ribbon cans, the Bud Light bottles, the Crown Royal bottle, the chewing tobacco can, the prescription bottles, the crack pipes and pieces of needles.

It makes Nielsen, 49, sad. And it makes his comrades here sad, too, the five of them in matching T-shirts reading “Focus on the Forest.” They are equipped with gloves and garbage bags. They have come to do what the people here before them failed to do: pack out.

“There’s always been some degree of illegal dumping, but looking at it from the past couple years, that activity has gone through the roof,” says Oscar Martinez, the U.S. Forest Service Pikes Peak District ranger who says Rampart Range and areas along Gold Camp Road are of particular concern. “We don’t have the capacity to address it on the scale it’s growing. That’s why Focus on the Forest is helping immensely.”

Focus on the Forest founder Shawn Nielsen, left and volunteer Connor Vaughn pick up trash strewn across a hillside Wednesday, April 12, 2017 off Rampart Range Road. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette 

It did not take some designated rallying call like Earth Day for Nielsen to decide how he would aid the environment. To form this trash-gathering initiative heading into its first spring, it simply took his frustration spilling over.

“I’m tired of talking about it. I’m tired of complaining about it,” he told his significant other, Eve Woody, one night last fall, following their latest encounter with junk under the trees: They woke at their campsite to find a group had left stuffed bags, which had been shredded by a bear.

As she cleans on this afternoon, Woody reflects on the secluded places that she came to love as a child. She grew up poor, with escapes into nature being her family’s vacation of choice. “It’s a detachment from the rest of the world,” she says. “It’s a connection with what grounds me, and when you see trash, you feel disconnected from that.”

Focus on the Forest founder Shawn Nielsen pulls garbage bags from his pickup truck while cleaning up a littered campsite Wednesday, April 12, 2017 off Rampart Range Road. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette 

Woody proposed the name stickered to Nielsen’s truck today: “Focus on the Forest.” The group has scheduled a clean-up day for May 20, before families flock to Teller County to camp for Memorial Day weekend. Nielsen expects a strong turnout – a good chunk of the 500-plus people who engage with Focus on the Forest’s Facebook page.

The turnout would be most welcome to Martinez. “Picking up trash is not a sexy undertaking,” he says. “You know, we get a lot of interest to help build trails, for example, but we don’t get a whole lot of folks wanting to spend a weekend cleaning up a forest.”

Until then, Nielsen and his core group of volunteers will continue seeking garbage. He lists his cellphone number on the organization’s website for anyone to call and report massive dumps from the woods. People also post GPS coordinates of sites to the Facebook page.

With notice, he heads out from his 26-foot trailer home in Woodland Park, towing behind his trusk the Focus on the Forest compactor if necessary. When it’s stocked, he pays to have it dumped at a landfill.

Focus on the Forest founder Shawn Nielsen pulls garbage bags from his pickup truck while cleaning up a trash-strewn campsite Wednesday, April 12, 2017 off Rampart Range Road. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette 

“I always told [Woody] I’d find my niche in life,” says the unemployed Nielsen. “We were laughing because I found a niche that doesn’t earn me money. It actually costs me money. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

The compactor came courtesy Connor Vaughn, who bought it for $2,700 on Craigslist.

“This is worth it to me,” he says in the woods, filling his garbage bag after his day at work.

A plumber by trade who last year moved to Divide from Denver to get away from the big city after his father’s death, Vaughn, 28, often thinks about his old man’s advice. Wherever they camped as youngsters, he and his four siblings were urged to pick up trash other than their own.

“To me, it’s like an insult,” he says. “It’s like, you wouldn’t go into someone else’s backyard and trash it. Well, this is all of our backyards. This isn’t for anyone to trash.”

Nearby, 10-year-old Krista Steila worries she and the four others won’t be able to totally declutter the area, and she worries about messes beyond their reach. “When animals eat here, it could kill them,” she observes.

It’s easy getting overwhelmed, Nielsen knows. People have asked him: How can it all possibly be picked up?

“One piece at a time,” he tells them.

Contact Seth Boster: 636-0332

Twitter: @SethBoster­­