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Partiers Trash Shasta Lake; The Forest Service is Left to Clean Up the Mess

Today we speak with Troy Nicolls — an employee of the United States Forest Service — about the annual nightmare he and his law enforcement colleagues endure after people – mainly college students – party like pigs on Shasta Lake.

Nicolls isn’t suggesting visitors stop having fun at the lake. But he and others are tired of cleaning up tons of trash and waste the partiers leave behind. Furthermore, Nicolls is among many people who are disturbed by the damage these people inflict upon Shasta Lake, one of the north state’s most scenic attractions and destinations.

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Q: Troy Nicolls, welcome to A News Cafe.com. First, can you please tell a bit about yourself?

troy nicolls

Troy Nicolls enjoying time at Burney Falls, far away from cleaning up trash left behind at Shasta Lake.

I’ve worked at Shasta Lake in the Recreation Department for the U.S. Forest Service since 1983. My current position is Assistant Recreation officer in charge of boat access recreation operations.

Q: In light of the photos we’ve seen recently of how visitors have trashed Shasta Lake, I can’t imagine a worse job than yours right now. So, for those who’ve not heard, bring us up to speed. What happens each May on Shasta Lake that’s increasingly disturbing to you and your colleagues? And while you’re at it, can you give a little background on this subject, please?

In the mid ’90s a group came down from Klamath Falls who had a loosely organized large houseboat party for Memorial weekend which drew students from several Oregon universities. The party originally occurred at the Mariners Point/Ski Island area.

This was a poor location of such a large group as it occupied developed recreation sites intended for legitimate campers. Also, it was in close proximity to a nesting pair of bald eagles, which at the time were an endangered listed specie. Consequently, the Forest Service persuaded the party to move to an alternate location.

That location was Slaughterhouse Island on Shasta Lake.

Photo source: Facebook/YouTube

Photo source: Facebook/YouTube

Q: Why was Slaughterhouse Island chosen?

Slaughterhouse Island is an isolated area, far from developed sites, which confines activities away from most other recreationists. The largest concentration of houseboats I am aware of at one time is 240 houseboats, each carrying 10 to 30 passengers.

Do the math and you get an idea of how many people we’re dealing with.

In the late ’90s, numerous Oregon universities began organizing their own party on Mother’s Day weekend.

Currently, the events have evolved to a series of three major events: Mother’s Day weekend, which had about 60 houseboats and was comprised mostly of Oregon State University; the May 21 weekend where another 60 houseboats were rented mostly by the University of Oregon students; and last, Memorial Day weekend, which will likely consist of between 150 to 200 houseboats carrying a variety of students from the Oregon Institute of Technology, the University of Oregon, the University of California, UC Davis, Chico State, and others that I am not aware of.

screen grab osu trip to shasta lake

Source: YouTube screen grab: “Highlights from Oregon State University students trip to Lake Shasta.”

Plus, there are locals who tap in on the out-of-town action. The Memorial Day crowd is definitely not just students, as there are older people with far more expensive watercraft at this event.

To summarize all that, college students have been coming to Shasta Lake to party for more than 20 years. Historically, Mother’s Day and Memorial weekends have been their dates of choice. But more recently they also party on weekends in between. The numbers of houseboats in one spot can range from 30 to 240 boats at one time. Each houseboat carries no less than 10 people, but it’s usually closer to 20 or more.

Their location of choice is Slaughterhouse Island.

Q: So, all that begs the question: What’s the problem? These are just people having fun, right?

Source: Youtube

Source: Youtube

College parties are fine, and could even be expected of kids on spring break.

But what’s disturbing is the amount of excessive alcohol consumption, drug use, unsafe boat operation, physical altercations, alcohol-related injury and total disregard for the environment, public land and fellow man.
college student mess water edge trashed

This is proven quite easily; measured in the dozens of cubic yards of waste collected by the Forest Service every year, and also the boating safety violations, medical aids and overdoses encountered by law enforcement.

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Q: No wonder you, and others left to clean this up, are so frustrated. But this isn’t new, right?

The problems local agencies have ALWAYS had with these parties are public safety and enormous amounts of litter.

screen grab shasta 2015

Specifically, the Sheriffs Office Boating Safety Unit deals continuously with boating safety issues as well as over intoxication, injuries, physical altercations, overdose and even death.

Forest Service law enforcement has always dealt with similar issues, and we try to enforce litter laws to the extent possible. Most of these kids are good people. They know the difference between right and wrong. The problem is what they do when they are intoxicated.

Photo source: Facebook/YouTube

Photo source: Facebook/YouTube

Typically, on the last night of every party like this, people come to realize the magnitude of environmental desecration they have caused and simply choose to leave the scene rather than deal with the responsibility of picking up their trash and other belongings with a hangover.

What we see is boats start leaving the island well before daybreak, and it’s not uncommon for nary a boat to remain by 8 a.m. We (the Forest Service) are stuck with cleaning up the aftermath.

Q:  I notice that many of the photos show lots of tents and gear – some of it new – left behind. I don’t get it. What’s that about?

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Besides their lack of respect for other people, public land and the environment, I believe there are a couple of other reasons for this behavior. One is weather-related. If it is pouring rain on their last night, they simply choose to leave early and are too lazy to clean up their belongings rather than dealing with wet gear in a rainstorm.

The other is I believe they truly buy camping equipment specifically for this event and write it off as “disposable camping gear”. This concept is becoming quite obvious as ALL of the equipment we have found after this weekend is cheap and brand new as evidenced by packing boxes also left behind.

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This weekend they left behind more than 90 tents, sleeping bags, mattresses, air pumps, ice chests (with food), beach towels and clothing. I estimate the value of this stuff from this weekend alone to be $5,000 to $10,000.

Another thing, one might extrapolate that many of these students didn’t pay for the gear anyway; their daddies did.

Q: So the students party like this all May. And you and others are left with the mess, and do your best to pick it all up and haul it off. Can you give an idea of how much staff and how many hours it takes to clean everything up, and what kind of quantity are we talking about in the way of trash?

It depends on the year, the lake level, the weather, the number of people at the party and the enthusiasm of my clean-up crew (cleaning up after such slobs can be quite demoralizing). One to two days is normal. Our intent is to clean up immediately after the event or the wind blows more trash into the lake. On average I would estimate we initially spend $2,000 per event to remove and dispose the trash. This boils down to about 10-person days. Usually it’s only myself and a couple of my Recreation Technicians, so it takes longer.

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Sometimes I get help from other recreation staff. Thankfully, the last couple years I have received tremendous support from the Shasta Lake Boaters, a local community organization.

This most recent party – just last weekend – will cost much more and take more time because the tents and camping gear are technically considered personal abandoned property, and by law,  it must be handled differently. Anything of value will have to be individually bundled and inventoried by officers for impoundment and storage.

This additional handling, documentation and storage could drive costs to more than $10,000. We’ve never had to deal with this amount of abandoned property before. It is such a waste.

Additionally, as the lake continues to drop on an annual basis, we are forced to clean up the Slaughterhouse Island area every couple weeks as there is often an equal amount of trash that goes in the water, which we are not initially able to recover.

Then, in early winter, storms cause erosion on the shoreline, exposing trash from 10 to 15 years prior. Really, it’s a six-month problem, and the actual costs are greater than I have already identified.

Q: What exactly are you encountering in the way of trash, and what do you do with it?

The list is long: Tents, sleeping bags, air mattresses, pillows, ice chests and personalized drinking containers (they are very creative in decorating drink containers, usually with an emphasis on over indulgence of alcohol and sexual promiscuity). Food is scattered everywhere. There are beer cans, hard alcohol bottles, Solo cups, ping-pong  balls, water bottles, floaty toys, Pedialyte, condoms, broken chairs, houseboat cushions, drug paraphernalia, drugs of all kinds, and human feces – even in tents. There’s toilet paper, shoes — lots of shoes and flip flops — and  bags of trash piled on smoldering fires.

college student UO flipflops

I could go on. We recycle what is practical, but the rest goes in the trash. Honestly, we spend as little time as possible dealing with this mess as it is always overwhelming at an already busy time of year.

Q: Troy, in your opinion, is the fallout of this annual college-student convergence getting worse at Shasta Lake?

Size wise, no, I don’t think so. In the past I believe we had much bigger, and probably much wilder groups. It’s just that we are now having three major weekends in May instead of the previous one or two.

This puts a huge strain on all agencies involved. We have ALWAYS picked up a ton of trash after these events, and the Sheriffs office has ALWAYS had to deal with public safety issues. The somewhat new issue of dealing with left-over personal belongings is what’s making this event more of a hassle for us to deal with than before.

Q: How do these kids get away with this? Are there any potential penalties?

That’s a really good question, but I think that would best be answered by the enforcement agencies involved. Personally I believe by sheer numbers of partiers, the situation is so overwhelming it is difficult to single out individuals to cite.

Q: Troy, these photos remind me of the homeless encampments that are unfortunately common in parts of Redding.

homeless campsite by waferboard flickr CC

This Redding homeless encampment resembles the trash partiers leave behind at Shasta Lake.

This kind of messes with my head, because supposedly, the perpetrators of this environmental destruction at Shasta Lake are American, educated, probably middle-class or higher young people. I guess I expect better from them.

My sentiments exactly. Behavior like this is something you’d expect from underprivileged, uninformed, down-and-out members of society, NOT our country’s best and brightest educated youth. Especially in this day and age when people tout environmental ethics and the emphasis on going green.

The bottom line is it appears that the objective of the majority of these people is to drink, smoke, or induce themselves into a state of near coma. Let me emphasize, these are not simple camping trips. These are massive, alcoholic, drug-ridden, sexually loose parties.

Q: I’m sure you and your colleagues have talked about this a lot. Two questions: What’s your best guess about the base causes, and what would you suggest as potential solutions?

You could write another article on how these events have been handled in the past, what all agencies involved have learned and all the ideas that have come fourth. For one thing, some marinas will not rent to these students. This is a big help, but not all marinas can afford to cut this kind of business.

Q: Ah. Actually, you’ve touched on something that complicates this issue: the commercial side. As out of control as these weekends are — in terms of extreme demands wreaked upon law enforcement, parks and emergency services — these partiers spend money, and lots of it. They buy gas, food, alcohol, and rent not just houseboats, but all kinds of water craft. As disgusting as Shasta Lake looks after these inconsiderate visitors are through with their vacations and head home, it would be even more disgusting if it turns out that there’s been pressure – implied or otherwise – to turn a blind eye to this annual mess to maintain the status quo, just to keep the money flowing into the north state.

But back to a solution. Your thoughts?

The bottom line is the issue is difficult to enforce, given the intensity and duration of the parties. But the fact is, people should not treat public land like this in the first place.

Q: Exactly. So what’s the answer?

Given the lack of adequate enforcement for these parties, I believe the only answer is to direct responsibility and associated shame and embarrassment on those responsible.

In the case of the major universities involved, this could have a substantial impact. Years ago, officials visited the schools and gave little talks. In my opinion, only the interested will attend, and the people we need to hear the message the most will skip it.

With the advent of social media, one person can have the eyes of millions. I believe that exposure through social media will have the most profound impact ever.

Q: I think you’re right, Troy. And here we are, sharing this information with tens of thousands of online readers. Today, you are that one person. I applaud you for letting the public know about something that’s been an issue for many years; too many years.

Is there anything else you’d like to say?

Today, the emphasis is on trash, but what I’d like to add is that problem is much more broad than that. This is all happening on a National Recreation Area on National Forest Land, a place intended for outdoor recreational use by the public.

As I’ve said, these are not simple camping trips we’re talking about, but huge, loosely organized intoxication-oriented events.

College student drinking under water at Shasta Lake

Yes, it’s possible to drink beer under water, as this young woman demonstrates in a YouTube video of Oregon college students vacationing on Shasta Lake.

Drugs (of all kinds, including date-rape variants), alcohol poisoning, fights, property damage, injuries, crime and overdoses are commonplace as well as past fatalities directly linked to these parties.

One thing that sticks in my mind is something that happened a couple years ago while assisting with a Mother’s Day weekend checkpoint. Forest Service law enforcement officers stopped a car with four under-aged girls for marijuana possession who were headed to the party. What the officers also found were large amounts of hard liquor, and, of all things, date-rape drugs. The girls were taken into custody and their parents were called.

What I’d also like to heavily emphasize is that the University of Oregon is currently taking the full rap for the mess their students caused last weekend, and this is well-deserved.

However, that’s just ONE of the universities whose students annually trash our lake. It is common knowledge among enforcement agencies that students – and especially Greek community members from the University of Oregon, Oregon Institute of Technology, UC Davis, Sacramento State and probably several others — have left even bigger trash messes than what we found this weekend (although never as much abandoned property).

Specifically, Mothers Day weekend this year we picked up about 8 cubic yards of trash coming from Oregon State University students.

college student plastic chairs in water
Memorial Day weekend attracts an older element, as well. Partiers in their 30s are not uncommon. Many are alumni from the same universities. Some are just locals or out-of-towners there for the party.

I have personally spoken with people nearly 40 years old who claim to have been coming for many years. When I asked one of the older guys who happened to be from Klamath Falls why he keeps coming back, his reply was, “Are you married? Do you have kids?” My answer was, “Yes, I’m married and have kids.” His statement was, ‘I’m not, and I don’t. Me and you, we just have different lifestyles.”

Rest assured, I don’t expect this Memorial Day weekend to be any different. Although enforcement will be stepped up for the event, we also have plans for our regular one to two-day clean-up.

In fact, already I have learned that the Oregon Institute of Technology plans a major event at Gregory Beach for Memorial Day.

You can easily do YouTube searches containing Shasta 2011, 2012, 2013, etc. and find volumes of evidence of multiple schools’ presence at Slaughterhouse Island.

Youtube.I assure you, if the partiers were there, we picked up boatloads of trash afterward.

More interesting and incrimination is the content of the YouTubes. You will get the idea of the emphasis on sex, drugs and alcohol.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NqaZ0kudylI

Q: Sure enough, a quick Google search and we found a number of videos, from which we grabbed a few screen shots for this story and interview. The evidence is pretty graphic, and damning. (We’ve provided links to few samples, below, for as long as they’re live. Don’t be surprised if they’re soon taken down by their creators.)

Thanks so much, Troy, for talking with me, and thank you – and your colleagues – for your service. I’m sure this wasn’t what any of you had in mind when you joined the United States Forest Service.

I hope this Memorial Day weekend will be memorably peaceful, and trash-free for you.

Click here for a 2016 OSU-Shasta Lake video.

Click here for a 2015  OSU-Shasta Lake video.

Click here for the video: Shasta Lake 2014 OSU.

Click here for Lake Shasta Extravaganza 2014

Click here for a video of OSU Shasta 2013.

Click here for Oregon Shasta 2013.

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Doni Chamberlain

Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded A News Cafe in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke. Chamberlain holds a Bachelor's Degree in journalism from CSU, Chico. She's an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She's been featured and quoted in The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The Washington Post, L.A. Times, Slate, Bloomberg News and on CNN, KQED and KPFA. She lives in Redding, California.

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