The woods are an attractive option for people who want to live off the grid, or a last resort for those with nowhere else to go. But indefinite camping is damaging forests.
In 2006, Becky Blanton decided to make a radical life change. She wanted adventure, and she set out to be a full-time camper, moving into her van and parking mostly on forest roads. But then she lost her job, and she had no choice but to continue living in her van. She parked on public lands throughout Colorado, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia for a year before she found a stable housing situation.
If she had to be homeless, Blanton said she actually felt safer in the woods than in the city. "The streets are dangerous," she told me. "In the woods you might have bears, but there are enough places to find shelter that you won't have to worry."
Each year, hundreds of people like Blanton spend time living on America's vast federal lands. Some wilderness dwellers consider themselves nomads and choose to live without a fixed address. Some are anti-government separatists of the Oregon militia's ilk. Others fit the more traditional definition of homelessness: They are without a place to live due to personal or economic hardship, and the woods provide them shelter. And while the wide-open land provides space for these people to settle, the presence of long-term campers presents challenges to public land management agencies: Their purpose is land conservation, not housing, and they're not equipped to keep up with the demands of human inhabitancy.
Most of the federal land in the US is managed by the United States Forest Service (USFS) or the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which oversee over 400 million acres in total. Both agencies allow for dispersed camping, meaning visitors can camp anywhere they want for free (unlike the National Park system, where camping is only allowed in designated areas and usually costs money).
None of these federal land management agencies know just how many people are using public lands residentially, partly because it would be impossible to find and count them all, and partly because numbers fluctuate seasonally due to weather conditions. But according to a recent USFS survey, non-recreational camping is on the rise.
"Our officers know the places to look, but some people are really good at hiding," said Chris Boehm, the USFS assistant director of law enforcement. "Just about every place has some story of a guy living out in the woods who we can never find."
The woods can be an attractive option to people who want to live off the grid, or a last resort for those with nowhere else to go. In the past, public lands have specifically been used to house the homeless—like the Umpqua National Forest in southern Oregon, which established a campground exclusively for homeless individuals and families in 1992. The site, named Blodgett, screened residents and arranged limited services, like portable toilets and a school bus service.
At the time, an optimistic Forest Service spokeswoman told the New York Times, "If it works, we may try it elsewhere." That never came to pass. Blodgett closed after a year in operation, having served about 100 people. Cheryl Caplan, Umpqua's public information officer, said the organization had to put up a deposit of $1 million just to get started, in case campers caused a forest fire.
"When visitors come out to the forest we want them to see the trees, the wildlife, the pristine water—not somebody's trash." — Chris Boehm
Fire risk is one thing: Ninety percent of wildfires in the US are caused by humans, and of those, unattended campfires are the most common trigger. In 2014, the USFS spent $320 million fighting its ten biggest fires alone, and fire fighting and prevention programs now make up over half of the USFS budget. Campfire bans are imposed at times of extremely high fire danger, but according to Boehm, these are difficult to enforce when a forest is full of dispersed, long-term campers.
Human waste and trash are another concern. Feces can cause illness or contaminate water if disposed of improperly; trash, which is supposed to be "packed out" of the forest, can build up when a site is occupied long-term. Some campers abandon broken-down vehicles in the forest, or go so far as to build illegal dwellings. "We've had several situations where people have occupied a site for years. That requires overwhelming cleanup," said Boehm.
Plus, he added, "When people don't move frequently enough, that leaves little opportunity for the land to heal and regrow. When visitors come out to the forest we want them to see the trees, the wildlife, the pristine water—not somebody's trash."
Currently, non-recreational camping is dealt with on a case-by-case basis. Because the types of campers and their reasons for living in forests vary from district to district, local land managers are responsible for making their own plans to address the issue. A common enforcement strategy is to reduce the standard 14-day stay limit where long-term camping becomes an acute problem, which often happens as a result of local housing shortages.
Matt Derrick, founder of Squat the Planet, stayed on BLM land in Montana for several months in 2010. He lived in a converted school bus, which he moved every 14 days to comply with camping rules. "I think 14 days is pretty generous," he said. "In a world where most laws seem to only exist to tax us, protect the rich, or protect us from ourselves, the 14 day rule feels pretty sane, and I feel like it's built to protect these wild lands, so they're there for everyone to enjoy."
Others—like Taylor Werner, who slept outside in national forests from 2005 to 2007—disagree. The 14-day limit, Werner said, "doesn't stop anyone from living indefinitely in national forests. In my experience, it is used as a rationale for unethical behavior while profiling certain types of forest dwellers."
Werner is wary of law enforcement efforts after a string of negative encounters. "I think it's sad if there's nowhere you can go in this country and just be—not be regulated or monitored by some governmental force," she said. "Forest dwellers are thoughtful, introspective people. I understood their motives, even if some of them were a little out there."
Follow Garnet Henderson on Twitter.