While conducting research for recent RVtravel.com articles on urban RV encampments and “homeless RVers,” I happened upon a very interesting study pertaining to the U.S. government’s perceptions and categorizations of campers on public lands. The white paper was published in the March 2020 edition of The Journal of Forestry, titled: Homelessness and Nonrecreational Camping on National Forests and Grasslands in the United States: Law Enforcement Perspectives and Regional Trends by Lee K Cerveny and Joshua W R Baur. It is a long article, loaded with citations, references, and links, but is worth reading by anyone with an interest in the public lands, dispersed camping, and the plight of what the authors refer to as “Nonrecreational Campers.”
The study includes a survey of U.S. federal law enforcement officers (LEOs) on their “perceptions” of the types of campers they encounter. Survey respondents were officials of the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and others who patrol the public lands and confront rules violations in the national forests, national parks, and grasslands, as well as the types of incidents the LEOs encounter and the actions they take.
The authors define the term “Nonrecreational Campers” as “… occupying a site for longer than two weeks for purposes other than traditional recreation. This includes individuals, families, or larger groups who are unemployed, seasonally employed, chronically homeless, temporarily displaced, transient retirees, students, or other travelers passing through the area. It also may include those living in the forest as a life choice.”
The study takes pains to categorize campers on public lands:
Types of nonrecreational campers and definitions
|Transient retirees||Individuals who appear to be elderly or retired and live in campers or recreational vehicles|
|Homeless adult groups||Informal gatherings of homeless adults, where group members may come and go|
|Solitary or antisocial individuals||Individuals who are living alone; some may be survivalists or separatists or antisocial|
|Families||Family groups of multiple generations, parents with children, or single parent families|
|Seasonal recreational or amenity workers||Recreational guides, ski instructors, or outfitters working in outdoor recreation or tourism|
|Fugitives||Individuals with outstanding warrants or who are wanted by law enforcement|
|Forest workers||Workers in logging, commercial harvest of mushrooms, berries, or floral greens|
|Communal groups||Organized and informal groups that intentionally choose to live in the forest and which may be nomadic|
|Students||Undergraduate or graduate students at universities who live in the national forest while they attend school|
|Teens, gangs or runaways||Groups of teenagers or young adults who may be runaways; some may be formal or informal “gangs”|
“Nonrecreational camping occurred in all nine USFS regions with varying degrees of frequency. More than half of the officers in the Rocky Mountain Region and the Southwestern Region indicated that they encountered nonrecreational campers at least once weekly.”
The task of U.S. Forest Service LEOs is daunting. They are responsible for patrolling hundreds of thousands of acres of public land, upon which, according to Cerveny and Baur, they must “address a full range of criminal activities on national forests. Their primary role is to provide human safety and protect resources from theft, vandalism, or destruction. Recent media accounts have drawn public attention to nonrecreational camping and identified various concerns, including fire, conflicts with recreation visitors, and sanitation violations.”
A noteworthy fact about this study is that it was published before the COVID-19 pandemic and before the wide publicity given to homeless RV parking in urban areas on public and private property. The social issues therein cited have but potentiated in the last two years.
The U.S. Forest Service is the custodian of 192 million acres of public land in 44 states. The holdings consist of 154 National Forests and 20 National Grasslands. What we have always referred to as “dispersed camping” or “boondocking” occurs on all the accessible, habitable lands and has for more than a century. This writer advocates for more, not less, RV and camper use of the lands. But the perceptions as set forth in the study by Cerveny and Baur do not bode well for the land agencies facilitating increased use.
Takeaways for RVers from the Journal of Forestry article
There are important takeaways for RVers from this professional journal article. It is essential that RVers do all they can to mitigate negative perceptions while camping on public lands. Here are some examples:
- Respect rules and regulations promulgated by the management agencies. Do not overstay limitations, such as the common 14-day stay limit in the national forests and on BLM lands. Complying with stay limits is not difficult because most land agencies have established reasonable requirements, such as moving a certain number of miles from one site to another, often within the same national forest. Some forests do not impose or enforce limits; the controlling agency office website will typically post the rules.
- It goes without saying: “Pack it in, pack it out.” Leave no trash, detritus, human- or pet wastes. Land management agencies spend millions of dollars each year mitigating the effects of careless camping, land impacts, fires, and the destruction of natural habitats. Don’t be part of the problem; be part of a solution to the perception problem.
The study authors cite an example: In 2015, a man was found living in the Uncompahgre National Forest in Colorado, where he generated 8,500 pounds of garbage, requiring 48 volunteers and a helicopter to remediate. Don’t be that guy.
- If contacted by an LEO, respond positively, and answer their questions. If you’ve overstayed, be willing to move along. Don’t challenge their authority or get belligerent about the “right” to camp beyond stay limits, cultivate the land, or set up a permanent encampment.
- If you encounter other persons in the forest, move along and don’t confront them. Don’t camp right on top of them. They may be antisocial and seek solitude alone in the forest. There are hundreds of thousands of acres in any given national forest or BLM land area. According to Cerveny and Baur, “solitary/antisocial individuals” were encountered by 90 percent of (LEO) respondents—more than any other group.”
As a group, RVers, including long-term boondockers and full-timers who frequent or inhabit the protected public lands, are responsible for the perceptions formed by the land management agencies, state and local authorities, and the public. Given the current heightened awareness of RV parking and camping in public places, it may be a long, uphill battle to turn the tide of public perception back toward responsible, low-impact camping.