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UNM students caught up in illegal teepee row

SANTA FE, N.M. — Mystery still looms over who is building teepee-like structures in the Santa Fe National Forest’s Aspen Vista area that forest managers say are illegal fire hazards.

But at least in one case, contrary to some theories, it wasn’t Bigfoot.

This screen capture from an Instagram page shows University of New Mexico students building an aspen-pole “teepee” in the Santa Fe National Forest. Forest officials have called the teepees, which began showing up in the past several months, illegal fire hazards.

The Lobo Life, a University of New Mexico student organization, published a photo on its blog of members making one of the structures from dead aspens last fall. Similar pictures could be seen on other social media.

But a university spokesman says UNM students didn’t invent or start the forest’s teepee phenomenon and only made just part of one.

The Santa Fe National Forest issued a news release in December outlining concerns about 20 “human-built conical stick structures” that had been discovered on and near the Aspen Vista Trail above Santa Fe. Some of the open teepees were about 20 feet tall and 20 feet in diameter.

A fire pit was created in one of numerous conical structures made from dead aspens near the Aspen Vista picnic area off Hyde Park Road, as shown here in a December Journal photo. ( Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Officials said the structures posed a fire danger, especially several of them that had fire pits inside. The news release described the teepees made from dry wood as “similar to a classic kindling pyramid, but on a much larger scale.” National forest spokesman Bruce Hill says the stick cones also could fall on hikers.

The Forest Service warned that building the teepees could be a serious deal for their makers – the playful-looking constructions constitute illegal building in the forest, punishable by up to $10,000 in fines and six months’ imprisonment, said the agency’s December news release. Officials asked anyone who sees the structures to report their locations.

A now-deleted picture from The Lobo Life’s page on UNM’s website showed students building one of the teepees during an October day trip to see the aspens, whose leaves turn a famous gold in autumn. Recently deleted photos also were posted on a Lobo Life member’s Instagram page, with the caption “We came, we explored, we built a teepee #thelobolife.”

UNM spokesperson Dan Jiron said about 10 people went on the trip. The students assembled just one “partial” teepee structure solely for a photo opportunity after seeing ones had already been built.

“It’s one of those things that they weren’t aware,” Jiron said. “(They were) not trying to do harm or anything illegal.”

The Lobo Life was developed out of UNM’s communication and marketing office, Jiron said, for students to visit statewide destinations, and document their adventures on social media and the web page.

Jiron said students told him there were no signs in the forest warning that the structures constituted a federal violation. “Going forward, they’ll make sure they do a bit of homework,” he said.

The national forest’s Hill confirmed that while the structures violate federal code that’s posted online, there are no warning signs in the woods. Hill wasn’t sure how many teepees are standing these days or how many have been dismantled since December. He also couldn’t say whether the UNM group would face any legal penalties. Hill said that would be a law enforcement decision.

“It could be when people come across them, they think, ‘Wow, these things are pretty cool, I wonder if I can make one myself,’ ” Hill said. “It might be something that has taken off that way.”