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.