Abandoned Campers And Squatting In National Forests: Interview with FS Region 2 Law Enforcement

We’ve seen some stories about this before, but hunting season definitely brings this to mind (exceeding limits and leaving unoccupied RVs in the forest). This was an issue that I noticed in the Bighorns even ten years ago, so it can’t be easy to solve. I’d be interested to see from current employees (1) is it a problem where you are? (2) what have you tried to deal with it? and (3) what kind of help or resources would you need to deal with it?. I think about Forest travel management and how “bad actors” off-trail ruined it for everyone, in some respects. As Jon said in his post: “The goal was to reduce resource damage from unmanaged motor vehicle use off that road system.”
Hopefully this won’t happen with dispersed camping.

This is a more comprehensive story on the issue, but was published in the Cowboy State Daily, so that’s the Wyoming connection.
Here’s a link. Thank you Cowboy State Daily for no paywall! You can always donate to them if you appreciate their reporting.

A Forest Service official also told Cowboy State Daily that the problem is ongoing across the West.

“Within the Rocky Mountain Region, which covers five states — Colorado, Kansas, Wyoming, Nebraska and South Dakota — abandoned campers and RVs and long-term recreational camping continue to be issues in national forests throughout the region. We tend to see higher rates during the summer and fall months and lower rates during the winter months,” said Nick Walters, the law enforcement patrol commander for the Forest Service’s regional headquarters in Lakewood, Colorado.

Is Private Management The Answer?

A long-term parking area was set up on the National Forest near Greybull in the 1980s, District Ranger Mark Foster recently told Cowboy State Daily. He oversees the Medicine Wheel Ranger District, which is based in Greybull and part of the Bighorn National Forest.

The system worked well at first, but then people started abusing it, leaving broken-down campers there for years — so long that animals started taking up residence inside some of them, he said.

Now, Foster wants the camper parking area cleared out.

Foster said he doesn’t want to permanently ban long-term camper parking. Instead, he hopes the Forest Service can convince a private concessionaire to take over the site.

They could charge a minimal storage fee and crack down on bad actors by seizing abandoned campers and immediately putting them up for auction, he said.

To sell or auction off abandoned campers, the Forest Service must go through a bureaucratic process that can take up the three months, he said.

Stinking Carcasses
Fawcett said that from what he’s seen in the Sheridan area, he’s convinced that people are flagrantly ignoring camp site time limits, and he doesn’t think the Forest Service is doing enough to crack down on it.

“It’s pretty obvious that the Forest Service and the users don’t pay attention to this,” he said.

Mosely said that as she and her husband have been making the rounds among campsites over the past couple of years, they have noticed some people who seem to have stayed in particular sites for months on end.

“We’ve seen people who stay in one spot for three or four weeks, or even months at a time,” she said.

And as hunting seasons open up across Wyoming and the rest of the region, a few hunters are campsite slobs, Mosely added.

“It’s not just the trailers, it’s the carcasses of animals that they won’t bury or properly dispose of,” she said. “When they’re done taking the meat from a big game animal, they leave the skin and the rest of the carcass just sitting out on the ground. The smell is nasty.”

Worse Near Big Cities

While Mosely said she saw people hogging good campsites at Flaming Gorge, Walters said Wyoming might be spared the worst of the abuses, which seem to take place near large metro areas.

“We see more recreational use on the National Forests that are close to highly populated cities or towns. With this use comes an increase in long-term camping, abandoned campers, vehicles, trash and waste. It’s hard to say if any one place is worse than another. These activities impact each forest or ranger district where they occur,” he said.

“We tend to see more extended use near the Denver Metro area, but we have resources available to assist with removal. The more remote district offices do not tend to have resources immediately available, so several abandoned campers could significantly impact those areas,” Walters added. “I am not able to respond to the question of whether there has been an increase or decrease in this activity from previous years.”

Check Local Regulations
To avoid annoying other campers, or possibly getting on the wrong side of the law and having their RVs impounded, people should double-check camp site time limits in whatever area they’re headed to, he said.

“Since most forests have slightly different stay limits, I suggest that individuals reach out to the Ranger District office that oversees the area they plan to visit. The Ranger District will be able to provide the most up-to-date rules and regulations for that specific area,” Walters said.

I’d just add that (in my experience) it’s not always easy to access human beings at Ranger Districts to ask questions via phone or email.

9 thoughts on “Abandoned Campers And Squatting In National Forests: Interview with FS Region 2 Law Enforcement”

  1. Definitely a big problem and yet another example of why Forest Service employees need to spend more time actually managing issues in the field rather than writing endless paper management plans that never actually get implemented on the ground. What good is a camping management plan limiting camping to designated sites (the latest management trend among land managers in Colorado) if all the sites are permanently occupied by semi-abandoned camper trailers that selfish jerks like to use to basically claim campsites as their own personal property? From what I’ve read on various local camping Facebook groups, the public 100% realizes what’s going on, and a lot of people are starting to just camp in these sites regardless of whether somebody left a camper there. At some point this is going to lead to a confrontation that gets somebody killed.

    90% of the issues land managers are trying to solve with all these restrictive camping management plans could be dealt by just rigidly enforcing existing 14 day stay limits and laws against abandoning property on the forest. If they need help doing so, they just have to ask one of the many volunteer groups they cooperate with. For example, the offroad group I volunteer with (Colorado Offroad Enterprise) recently demolished and removed an abandoned camper near Saint Elmo that had been there for years. We could have done it ages ago if the Forest Service had authorized it.

    • I had heard that the FS rec strategy meeting had much about partnering to get things done, I wonder if this was one of the examples?
      I also wonder how this plays out with liability concerns.. hauling stuff off and demolishing.

      I guess the bigger problem is that if there aren’t enough trained FS folks to enforce rules.. can partners be trained to help? Maybe they could just tour roads and note parked vehicles and point out ones left too long for the FS to cite? Seems like their must be a way for partners to help without confronting people/legal liability for dangerous situations directly. Maybe not.

  2. Patrick is right on target with his response; back in the day, we all were primary firefighters and helped with law enforcement duties. I was on a timber Forest, and out all the time. I had my level II and level III law enforcement training and I wrote many a ticket. My mentor was a retired FBI Agent working as an LEO and he didn’t mess around. We accomplished many a fire investigations, theft and rec disturbances. I was on my own many, many times.

    When I returned to the forest service in late 2001, no one actually wrote tickets! The same “stovepipe” that swallowed fire had also taken ahold of the law enforcement, and that is a tragedy! Fear was a built in as a given for just about everything that related to managing people (or fire). As a Ranger, I got rid of abandoned cars and crap; there are processes for it in place, and we made it happen.

    As for opportunities for the recreating public to enjoy their national forests, quit squeezing down those opportunities to camp. I go back to the old “balloon analogy”; you squeeze on it it will pop out somewhere else! Manage the dispersed load with Level II folks, it can be done! Put some “boots on the ground” to quote Rick Cables, and make it happen. And as the ink has just dried on a recreation rollout – “It’s all yours, come play”…..

  3. And then there’s this: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2023/09/18/homeless-man-shot-by-police-while-living-on-national-forest-land/70793857007/

    **After being kicked out of their apartment, the family lived in an RV camper, moving from trailhead to trailhead on public lands for the past three years. They were living in a national forest (Payette) in May when the U.S. Forest Service and a barrage of law enforcement tried to arrest the family for camping on public land longer than allowed. Roberts was shot and the injury left him paralyzed from the waist down.

    In response to the shooting, lawyers filed a personal injury tort claim on behalf of Roberts against the federal government for $50 million, representing a lifetime’s worth of lost earnings due to his condition.

    “I’ve been doing this work for almost two decades, and I’ve never heard of federal law enforcement using all these resources from multiple agencies just to target a single family for arrest for unsanctioned camping,” Tars (National Homeless Law Center) said.

    Aside from trained law enforcement, Tars said he’s worried about members of the general public who might try to apprehend unhoused people as vigilantes.**

    This is an interesting public lands issue in the context of this post. What’s also interesting is what happens when an unannounced raid runs into an open carry – cops shoot someone, get sued.

    • This was kind of a weird article to me.

      “Forest Service officers needlessly and recklessly shot Mr. Roberts repeatedly, causing him extreme suffering and permanent disability,” said Ritchie Eppink, one of Roberts’ lawyers.

      The shooting occurred after Roberts, who had a .22 revolver with him, pointed his weapon at the two plainclothes officers after they confronted his brother. He did not fire, police body camera footage shows. After seeing Brooks Roberts’ gun, officers unleashed a storm of gunfire on him, the footage shows. Since Idaho is an open carry state, Roberts was within his rights to be holding the weapon.”

      I don’t think being in an open carry state gives folks the right to point weapons at police officers.
      Those seem like two different things to me. Certainly people have aimed guns at police in non-open carry states. I’m not a lawyer, but it seems to me carrying a gun and pointing it at someone are two different things.

        • Not to mention that the federal cops appear never to have heard of the Boise and Grants Pass Ninth Circuit decisions that declare laws criminalizing involuntary homelessness to be unconstitutional. Those rulings apply with equal, if not greater, force to federal anti-camping laws as they do to municipal laws. This is going to get complicated real fast.

          • This certainly is news to me; I doubt only a handful of Forests are aware of that Ninth Circuit Ruling. Talk about complicating things in a hurry…..

  4. It doesn’t help when local agencies that help the homeless provide donated trailers/RVs and take these folks out to the national forests to live – and they bring them groceries every so often. One district I worked on couldn’t figure out why we were seeing more people living in trailers on FS land – turned out the local “mission” was re-homing them on FS land in donated trailers. They meant well, but their efforts were resulting in large trash dumps and abandoned trailers that cost a lot of “your tax dollars” to remove.


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