(Many of the comments I have got from this post expressed anger at the individual Ranger who came into my camp. I need to apologize to him and to all my readers for miss-communicating. The Ranger was polite, reasonable and professional; he was a good guy doing a hard job!! My issue is not with the Rangers, it is with what I consider to be an extreme over-reaction on the part of the Forest Service Management in a few National Forests to the problem of the homeless.)
This Sunday I want to talk about the legality and morality of the way of life I promote. The truth is the vandwelling lifestyle is so far out of societies norms, that most of the time we are either right on the edge of breaking laws, and sometimes it appears we go over the edge and actually break laws. So each of us must decide for ourselves what we are comfortable with. For myself, I try to live my life by a very simple code:
- Do the most good for others that I reasonably can
- And do the least harm to myself, to others, and to the entire planet community that I possibly can.
As a boondocking vandweller I have bent many laws (and possibly broke some) but I have always done it with my code in mind of doing as little harm as I possibly can. So if I have ever accidentally stayed more than 14 days on public land, it was always been with the idea that I was doing no harm. I wasn’t damaging the land because I left it just the way I found it—no harm done. I wasn’t keeping anyone else from using it, because I was in remote places with no one else around. So even if I was technically breaking the law, I still lived up to my own moral code of doing as little harm as possible.
We recently had a Forest Service Ranger in camp who made it totally clear that my boondocking lifestyle was breaking the law as the Forest Service interprets the law. That has raised the question in my mind of just how far I am willing to go to follow my chosen life. Let me start by explaining the new interpretation of an old law the Forest Service (FS) has come up with.
It has always been illegal to set up residence in a National Forest, or any other Public Land like BLM Land. I have no problem with that, I believe the land is held in public trust for every citizen as an owner to use, but not for any one person to live on. Up to now as long as you didn’t build any kind of permanent structure and obeyed the laws by moving every 14 days, full-time vandwellers and RVers were allowed to use Public Land year around. That is no longer the case!
As I understand it, if you are a full-time vandweller or RVer, and do not have a home to go to, you are not allowed to camp in the Forest for even one day. If you don’t have a residence somewhere, then you are living in the Forest and can be fined and cited even if you aren’t breaking any other laws.
Two weeks ago a Forest Service Law Enforcement Officer (LEO) came into my camp and asked to see my ID and started asking where my home was, I was alarmed, so I started giving vague answers trying to avoid getting myself into trouble. I told him I had a mail forwarder in Pahrump, but he kept pressing and wanted to know where I lived when I was in Pahrump. By then I was very alarmed so I told him I rented a room from a friend. That was semi-true because I have talked to my mail forwarder about renting a room from her just in case I had to have some sort of genuine residence. I told her I would pay the rent and spend a few hours there, but never sleep there and she agreed.
As our conversation went he told me that if I did not have a residence anywhere else, then I was living in the Forest and he could issue me a citation. So I asked him if he could cite me even if I was obeying all the laws and only stayed 14 days and then moved on, and he told me YES, he could cite me for living in the Forest unless I could prove to him that I had a residence somewhere else. He told me that he was unusually tolerant and so he was not going to cite me, but many other Rangers would have.
Of course I was stunned and had never heard of such a thing. Later on I talked to another boondocker who told me that he had a nearly identical conversation with another Ranger in the Coconino NF. The Ranger asked him if he had a home and when he said “Yes” asked him if he owned it. My first reaction was we were going back to the Middle Ages where there were the Landed Gentry who owned property and could hunt on the Kings land and everyone else were serfs who got the crumbs from their Masters tables.
That got me very curious and concerned, so I started doing some research to see what was going on. After a Google Search on “living in the National Forest” I found three newspaper articles discussing this very topic, two in Northern Arizona, one in Colorado. I have links to those articles at the bottom of this post. To show this wasn’t just a one-time fluke, I want to take some quotes from those articles and discuss them.
Here is the story of a couple who obeyed all the laws but were cited for $275 for “Residential Use of the Forest”
“(Barbara) also said that she had moved from the Coconino (National Forest) and then back to the Kaibab (National Forest) after he had warned her that this activity was residential use. Based on all that information, (the officer) issued her a citation,” wrote Brady Smith, spokesman for the Coconino National Forest.
The problem, say the Haackes, is a seasonal sticker on their motorhome allowing them to camp on Bureau of Land Management land near Quartzsite, northeast of Yuma.
The officer zeroed in on the sticker, realized the Haackes were living in their motor home, and cited them accordingly. The ticket was later reduced to $100. This couple had a LTVA sticker on their RV, and that was all the evidence the Ranger needed to issue them a citation for living in the Forest
Here is a story from the ourcoloradonews.com in which they interviewed Pike National Forest Recreation Programs Manager Frank Landis and this is what he said:
“People can use the forest for recreation but living there is illegal,” Landis said. “We check to see if campers have a permanent address and our rangers have learned to recognize illegal camps. If vehicles are gone in the daytime, that usually means the campers are working.”
So in some Forests it is now Standard Operating Procedure for a Ranger to examine your camp and determine of you are a homeless person or a full-time RVer living on Public land. If he thinks you are, he is supposed to ask you if you have a residence somewhere, and if you don’t he can issue you a ticket right there.
In another article from the Arizona Daily Sun I found this interview with Jon Nelson, patrol captain for the Coconino, Kaibab and Prescott national forests:
Technically, it’s illegal to live in the forest for even a day, whether in a motorhome, a camp trailer or a tent.
“It doesn’t matter how many days you stay on the national forest — you can’t use it for residential use,” Nelson said.
But it’s also tough to prove that a person is living in a recreational vehicle in the forest, as opposed to just staying there as a temporary camper.
You have to see that the topic here is not 14 day Recreational Camping; we all know that is the general limit for camping. The FS is arguing that by not having a home anywhere else we must automatically be residing in the Forest, even if we are there for just one day. It is a very subtle distinction (but critically important) between the two.
What does it mean to you and me?
- It means the Federal government has stepped up its war on us and we are going to have to act accordingly. I am not going to suggest anyone break any laws, but I am saying you need to look for every loophole you can to avoid the appearance of breaking any laws. If the Ranger is going to come into camp looking for any signs you are a full-time RVer then we should avoid giving him any reason to think we are. At the same time, if he starts interrogating you about your permanent residence you should have a satisfactory answer ready to give him. Here are some actions I recommend you take to avoid getting a citation for “Residing” in the Forest:
- Don’t have any signs or stickers on your RV or van that would in any way imply you are a full-timer like an Escapee sticker, a Quartzsite bumper-sticker or last years LTVA sticker. It’s terribly sad I have to write something like this, but this is what it has come down to.
- Avoid having too elaborate a camp that makes it seem like you are settling in for a long time. The less comfortable it is, the more you look like you are just there for a short stay.
- Camp in as remote a place as possible so that it is unlikely the Ranger will pass through and find you. If he doesn’t know you are there, he can’t interrogate you. The more popular the camping area, the more likely you are to get a ticket.
- Have an expensive looking vehicle. Some of our group were about ¼ mile away in new, expensive Lazy Daze Class Cs, and no Ranger every stopped by to harass or interrogate them.
- If the Ranger does find you and asks for your ID, it is my understanding you don’t have to give it to him. What I do is give him my passport; that is perfectly legal ID and it gives him very little information that can be used against me. The last one looked at my Passport and asked me if I had my Drivers License and I told him I had it out last night and had misplaced it, but if he wanted to wait an hour or two I would search and find it.
- If he does start interrogating you, say as little as you can. Yes and no or one-word answers are the safest. Of course in this country you are not required to answer ANY questions and you can ask him if you are a suspect of breaking a law, and if you are you refuse to answer and would like an attorney. The problem with that is you have really elevated the situation from a game of cat-and-mouse to a serious issue. I don’t know if that is a good idea or not, you have to decide that for yourself.
For me, the best thing is to be polite and friendly and avoid any escalation, and at the same time have a rock-solid answer to where I reside. Here are some examples of steps I can take and answers I might give:
- I would call my mom (or my sister or my son or even a friend) and tell her I would like to come and visit her every year in November through March and that I would like to lease a room from her for $100 a month. We would get a standard Lease Rental Agreement or a Roommate Agreement, fill it out and both sign it. I would then pay her $100 a month and give her $500 and she would give me a receipt. Then she would give me $500 for an early birthday present. She is very generous! Then when the Ranger asked me where I lived I would say I like to travel in the hot months, but I rent a room every November through March in Florida during the cold months. In fact I had just paid for it and got a receipt, would he like to see it? If he says yes, I would show him the lease and the receipt. I don’t know how he could ever argue I didn’t have a residence.
- For a long time I have been debating with myself whether I would buy a piece of land or not. I would really like to but then I would ask myself, “Why should I buy land when I can just stay on Public Land for free?” I never had an answer before, but with this strict new interpretation of the residency laws, I do. I am actively planning on buying a cheap piece of land in Arizona (probably near Show-Low) and carry the deed around with me. Then if the Ranger asks where I live I will say, “I have land near Show Low with a little cabin on it, would you like to see the title deed?” If he does, I will show it to him.
- One of the things I would like to do is lease a part of my land to some of my friends. I would offer you the same deal my mom was offering me. You pay me $100 a month and we sign a lease contract and pay me; then I would give you a receipt. And like my mom, I am very generous with my friend’s birthdays!
The bottom line is every one of us needs to have an answer as to where we reside. If that means getting a little creative, then that is just what you will have to do. I think of it like paying taxes: I don’t want to break the law, but I want to find every loophole I can and pay as little as I can. Start getting creative and looking for loopholes!