People Living on Federal Lands and What it Might Mean for Fire Management

Since the announcement of the Forest Service 10 year plan last week, there’s been some renewed statements and op-eds about “they shouldn’t be doing that, they should just harden homes.. and do mitigation up to 200 feet.”

Now states like Colorado and California, for sure, don’t believe this, as you can easily see from state legislation and budgets for fuel mitigation projects . But I’ve always resisted the framing that the wildfire issue is about burning homes- it’s also about other community infrastructure, watershed protection and reservoirs here in Colorado, about protecting endangered species habitat, and the health and safety of human beings (residents, recreationists, and firefighters), and our associated animal companions and livestock. I don’t know where the “homes only” idea originated, or why it seems to have such staying power in some parts of the media. Like I’ve said, it’s both/and, not either/or.

A few months ago, I came across this in-depth story about homeless people, whether by choice or circumstance, living in the National Forests and BLM. It’s by Sarah Tory and in Bay Nature Magazine and was done in partnership with High Country News.  It’s a complex problem.  My point here is home hardening and clearing won’t do much if you don’t have a home.   To me, we need to deal with fire on forests and other federal lands the way they currently are, and not as we wish they might be.  I think we might (perhaps?) be less sympathetic to recreationists but very sympathetic to the homeless.

Even before the pandemic, land managers noticed a growing number of non-recreational campers. A 2015 study found that Forest Service law enforcement officers and other officials in many parts of the U.S. were encountering a steady flow of people using public lands as a temporary residence. The largest share were transient retirees, followed by displaced families and homeless individuals. Nearly half the 290 officers surveyed reported that encounters with non-recreational campers had increased over time. Officers in the Rocky Mountain Region and the Southwestern Region, as well as California, encountered non-recreational campers most often; more than half the officers in both regions reported coming across such campers at least once a week, as did 42 percent of officers in California.

The findings make sense in the context of America’s housing crisis and rising homeless population, says Lee Cerveny, a research social scientist with the Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Research Station, which spearheaded the 2015 study.

Western states have some of the highest rates of homelessness, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2020 Homeless Assessment Report. California tops the list, with 161,548 people experiencing homelessness—28 percent of the entire country’s unhoused population. Mental health problems, addiction, childhood trauma, interaction with the criminal justice system, and poverty all play a part in whether someone becomes homeless. But the main reason? The person can no longer afford rent.


Whatever the motive, the growing presence of campers on public land is having an impact, from trampled vegetation and improperly buried human waste to trash piles deep in the woods. The cleanup costs incurred by non-recreational campers in hot spots like Oregon’s Willamette National Forest were as high as $250,000 in 2018. Those biophysical impacts—as well as the growing threat of wildfires—spurred land managers to restrict or shut down dispersed camping in places like Colorado’s Arapaho Roosevelt National Forest near Boulder, the Tahoe National Forest in California, and the BLM’s Carson City District outside Reno, Nevada. As increasing numbers turn to the West’s public lands for solace and escape, the conflicts around dispersed camping are raising difficult questions over what exactly it means to camp, and what—and who—the public lands are for.


The last time Dirk Addis paid rent was May 2002. A month later, he moved from San Diego to Mammoth Lakes, a popular mountain town in the Eastern Sierra, to work in a gear shop. Even then, the town had limited affordable housing options, so Addis decided to try living out of his van for the summer in the Inyo National Forest, which encompasses all but four of the town’s 24 square miles.

When I met Addis, 54, one afternoon for coffee, he wanted me to know that he is not homeless—nor does he even really “live” in his vehicle.

“I live on planet Earth,” he said. “I just happen to sleep in my van during inclement bouts of weather. Otherwise, I’m sleeping outside under the stars.” Addis averages 200 nights a year sleeping that way. His cousin calls it NUTS: nights under the stars.

But for all its romantic connotations, Addis’s lifestyle was born out of a housing crisis. Like Fitch and Fernandez, Addis is what he calls “homeless by design”—partly because the local housing alternatives are unappealing at best and nonexistent at worst.

As in most ski towns, the majority of Mammoth’s homeowners do not live in Mammoth. They live in Southern California and come to ski on weekends or spend a few weeks during the summer. In the hills around Mammoth, empty lots sell for over $1 million, and new five- to seven-bedroom mansions go for upwards of $5 million. Most of the more affordable housing is in a series of densely packed condominiums and small A-frames built in the ’60s and ’70s near the center of town. But with Airbnb’s arrival 10 years ago, many of the second-home owners who previously rented their condos to locals switched to nightly rentals instead, exacerbating an already strained housing market. According to a report from Mammoth Lakes Inc., a local housing nonprofit, more than half of Mammoth Lakes’ households cannot afford market rate rents in the town.

Addis, who currently works as a maintenance man for a condo complex, is blunt about Airbnb: “It has fucked ski towns,” he says.

Addis quickly realized that he would have to work at least two, probably three jobs and spend at least half of his earnings on rent—most likely a tiny studio apartment or a condo with multiple roommates.

“What the hell!” he says. “No!”

So Addis stayed in his van that winter. Then another winter, and another, moving every 14 days to a new site to stay within the laws. He was not the only one who saw the forest as Mammoth’s best available housing option. In the early 2000s when Addis began living in his van, he estimates, there were at most 20 people living in the forest during the summers and five who did it year-round like him. Now, he says, there are roughly 100 people in the summer and probably about 30 during the winter, when it can snow five feet at a time.


Leonard told me that the new efforts to manage dispersed campers, plus a decrease in visitors compared to last summer, had helped soften his views. Still, he considers the RVs, in particular, an eyesore. He offered to drive me out to a popular dispersed camping area—a wide basin east of town near Hot Creek, one of his favorite fishing spots.

We stopped at a pullout overlooking the creek. Leonard pointed to a group of RVs parked off on a hillside. “So, it’s an unofficial RV campground,” he said. “Is it right, or is it wrong? I don’t have the answer to that question. I’d prefer they’re not there, but they’re there.”

Later, he admitted he has the luxury of saying all this as a homeowner in Mammoth. “It’s easy for me to be up on the pedestal being like, ‘Get the fuck out of the forest,‘when I can go home to my house every night,” he said.

Recently, Mono County voted to ban overnight camping in the parking lots of county parks and on paved roads. Corless worries the ordinance will push people living in the forest farther from town, instead of solving the problem. Mammoth, like many mountain towns, has not protected its existing low-cost housing or built additional units to the extent necessary for an affordable community housing market. A few years ago, Mammoth purchased land in the town’s center for more affordable housing, but those units won’t be ready for another couple of years. “You can’t catch up from 40 years of policy that didn’t address housing needs in a year,” Corless says.

7 thoughts on “People Living on Federal Lands and What it Might Mean for Fire Management”

  1. Yikes, this wasn’t even on my radar screen. Thanks for the post. Jack Cohen has written much about landscape-level wildfire mitigation not being financially feasible. That we should focus on HIZ and maybe strategically located fire breaks (fuel reduction breaks). Let the rest burn. I happen to agree but I know others would not. It’s certainly a monumentally sad way to have to deal with wildfire problems that humanity created.

    Also let’s keep in mind that homelessness is just a symptom of the hugely unequal distribution of wealth that returned to the US with the 1980 election, after the post WW2 emergence of the most well-to-do middle class in the history of the US. Lot’s of reasons for the debacle that blossomed about 1980, mostly created by the GOP, many of them having taken a decade or more to develop fully.

    • So unequal distribution of wealth in California, a democratic strong hold for generations, is due to the GOP? Ah if only it was as simple as partisan politics.

  2. One could speculate that the answer to “why it [homes only] seems to have such staying power” is that such an idea offers an escape valve from what otherwise constitutes a dilemma for certain portions of the ENGO landscape. To lay it out a bit, consider the following.

    The FS may, on occasion, get a touch fixated on the reduction of fire danger.

    That often includes commercial and mechanical forestry tools among the methods to be used.

    When that includes commercial or mechanical forestry tools, businesses with logging in their portfolios are going to be interested in such an opportunity.

    This in turn sets off alarm bells in those opposed in general to commercial forestry or logging or what have you, who think there may be a bit of a trojan horse involved. But this is complicated by a body of credible literature about practices such as thinning and their impacts on fire danger, Hanson et al notwithstanding.

    Then consider the clear danger of wildfires intersecting with increased WUI development seen in wildfire seasons especially clearly in the recent past.

    However, as you say, the both/and solutions are considerably more comprehensive and realistic in terms of a solution that works in the multiple-use framework, mitigates large fires, restore fire regimes, and addresses home ignition zone concerns. It also happens to be one that works more realistically with jurisdictional boundaries and the lack of FS jurisdiction on private lands generally, but that’s a separate tangent. Frankly, homes only talk as much as thinning only both smack of unrealistic panaceas that turn wildfire preparedness into a proxy-war like front for larger political battles that never stopped, just changed forms.

    The resulting dilemma presents with one horn being the acceptance of a practice that gives too much away to the proverbial enemy, in this case the traditional FS way of doing things and the continued existence of logging businesses that operate of NFS land. The second horn of the dilemma is the risk of being seen as not caring about fire danger in light of the frenzied media coverage. So what’s one to do? The escape valve metaphor comes in because “homes only” is a solution that allows one to claim an alternative trajectory that says you can mitigate all the risk with few or none of the costs (i.e. none of the perceived giveaway to the interests you oppose).

    (There’s also, maybe, an interesting and way philosophical aside into something I’ve seen discussed in the past, about the human / nature dichotomy and the reinforcement of that by those that think respect for nature is most highly expressed in noninterference or cloistering of humans out of nature that would be otherwise pristine (except for nonmotorized foot-based recreationists, of course).

    Relation here is that “homes only” keeps humans and nature, or more accurately areas of human interference and noninterference, more adequately divided and thus it slots more neatly into that view of the world while still being able to claim some measure of seriousness about wildfire preparedness and response)

    • Looks like I may have mis-edited myself there and the paragraph beginning: “However, as you say,” should be after the one beginning “the resulting dilemma” , mea culpa

  3. “Like I’ve said, it’s both/and, not either/or.”
    Like I’ve said, it’s most important (lives/homes) first. And I think that is the priority built into the 10-year plan.

    Maybe something like this would make sense to help the Forest Service manage permanent camping. A community could apply for a special use permit to operate something like this (ideally in locations that are not attractive to recreational campers).

    • Jon, when we discussed this in 2020, it turned out that the Umpqua had experimented with this.. including comments.

      I wonder whether some TSW readers from the area might be interested in finding out what happened to this 1992 effort. Like I said in the comments then, close too town might be too close for residents, too far from town would be a travel hassle. Still… there could be a some middle ground.

    • Jon, the idea of a special use permit is interesting. I can see a number of pluses and minuses. The permit holder would essentially operate a homeless shelter in an area with few or no services, power, water, toilets, trash pickup, etc.

      As I was thinking about this, I also thought about a church in my area that has a ~2-acre recreation field that isn’t used much, with another acre or two of open forest around it. This field has those services, some of them in the church itself, with a grocery store and other stores and restaurants an easy walk away. I’m sure the neighbors of the church would be a huge can of worms….


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