Karns Meadow campers again a summer problem

JACKSON, Wyo. — Police and concerned citizens are once again grappling with issues of transients using Karns Meadow as temporary housing.

With the arrival of better weather, comes the age-old problem of squatters in some of the more secluded sections of the natural meadow in the middle of Jackson.

A man living in the willows in Karns Meadow threatened Schroeder. Photo: Chris Schroeder

When Chris Schroeder took a shortcut to the post office recently, walking through Karns Meadow, he was surprised at what he saw.

“I came upon some pallets that had been hauled down there as a platform for the small village that springs up every year,” Schroeder said. “I followed them into an illegal campsite with a nice new tent, locked up with a padlock. It was obvious that someone had been there awhile and planned on being there awhile longer.”

Further investigation by Schroeder led to a trail of garbage which led to a man apparently living in the willows.

“He had cut down a large swath of willows, dug a trench, and had multiple pieces of luggage. It was Memorial Day, and he was set for the summer,” Schroeder said.

Schroeder told the man he shouldn’t be camping there and alleges the man then threatened him. Schroeder left and got in touch with the Jackson Police Department. Chief Todd Smith replied in a long email.

“It is predictable that the very problem that crops up each year as the favorable weather arrives would begin to take hold again,” police chief Todd Smith stated in his reply to Schroeder. His department has taken a multi-faceted approach to the use of Karns Meadow by homeless park poachers.

Recognizing that local law enforcement does not have the bandwidth to respond to and monitor every situation in the meadow, what the police do is what they can. They make occasional sweeps, ask the Citizen’s Mounted Patrol to swing by every now and then, and rely on the community users of the park to let the department know whether there is a true public safety issue.

Litter and sanitary conditions are a concern in the pristine wetlands area of Karns Meadow. Photo: Chris Schroeder

Smith is sensitive to the fact that many of the transients that choose to ‘camp’ in the Jackson area do so because they do not like to be in the company of others. Many are offered alternative arrangements like the local shelter but often they would rather be alone, Smith says.

A permanent solution could come in the form of an anticipated meadow makeover. Parks and Rec, along with impetus from Jackson Hole Land Trust, has a capital improvement project slated at Karns Meadow. The plan would add pathways, lighting, restrooms, and cut back some of the vegetation around Flat Creek that runs through the meadow. The project has been slowed by more immediate concerns and, now, COVID-19.

A well-constructed willow hut was observed on Memorial Day. Photo: Chris Schroeder

“I do not have adequate daily resources to fix this problem long-term without a good plan and a unified effort with Parks and Rec to sustain it,” Smith said. “Simply put, if we allow an area to become overgrown with willow bushes someone will take that as an invitation to squat there. If we make it less appealing to them, it will self-correct to a manageable level. They choose the location because it’s isolated and generally difficult to view from the street.”

There has not been a serious crime committed in the meadow in recent memory. Most of these squatters have kept to themselves. But sanitary concerns are a concern to some like Schroeder.

“These are not displaced, disadvantaged people. These are transient summer bums who come through on a bohemian walkabout,” Schroeder said. “There are plenty of places to camp other than protected wetlands. You don’t have to search very far to see the effect that ‘looking the other way’ has had on the quality of life and environment in other formerly ideal, bucolic spots to predict our future if this is allowed unchecked.”

It has been an unspoken and delicate balance throughout the years. A heavy-handed approach could have worse repercussions, but tacitly allowing the practice of illegal camping in Karns Meadow may also backfire one day.

For now, Smith is doing what he can to police the area and serve the community. Days after receiving the email from Schroeder, Smith personally patrolled the meadows and found no one there.

“Thanks for caring enough to be involved and to reach out,” Smith wrote to Schroeder. “Successful policing comes through a joint effort with the police and the community, and I am very appreciative that you are willing to work with us on a solution.”

Pallets brought to the wetlands help transient squatters move about the marshy conditions in the meadow. Photo: Chris Schroeder
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