Whose Land Is This, Anyway?
July 18, 2012

Recently, I've been thinking and researching a fair bit about public lands in the United States -- and to whom, exactly, that land belongs.

Photo by Nick Blumberg
A swimming hole on the Agua Fria National Monument in Arizona.

I first started thinking about this after a couple of unusually (for me) outdoorsy weekends spent, respectively, at a swimming hole on the Agua Fria National Monument and camping near Fossil Creek, east of Camp Verde, Ariz. They're both incredibly beautiful places that I can't imagine the U.S. going without. And indeed, the country has a history of identifying and preserving open spaces for public use and enjoyment. (Yes, the record is certainly far from perfect, but keep your eyes looking out the window during a cross country flight and pay attention to just how much of America is undeveloped.)

This topic also came to the forefront when a listener called our Phoenix newsroom where I work to complain; not about a story we'd done, but about something that happened to him. The guy told the producer who fielded the call that he'd been camping on the Kaibab National Forest and got a $275 ticket -- in the middle of the night and without any warning, he stressed -- for camping over the limit (14 days in any one-month period.)

His story was interesting in light of a piece that my Flagstaff Fronteras colleague Laurel Morales had reported last month, about the increasing homeless population living on National Forest land.

The man who called the newsroom would most certainly not identify as homeless. He camps in a van that he's converted into a motor home, and says he lives in the town of Williams, Ariz., just south of where he was ticketed. A friend of his I spoke to who also got ticketed describes himself as a "permanent RV'er."

This is where it gets into sticky, interesting, confusing places that I have way more questions about than answers. These guys have homes: motor homes. If you told either of them they were homeless, you'd no doubt get an earful in return. But even though public land is here for public enjoyment, it's illegal to LIVE there. If you're camping -- even with a van, motor home, trailer, what have you -- for extended periods of time, it can reach a point where forest law enforcement no longer sees you as violating camping rules, but as attempting to establish residency. And they're especially vigilant about cracking down on that when Arizona is, as you so often hear in news reports, "tinder dry" and constantly under extreme threat of wildfires.

The "permanent RV'er" said he gave up his house in Seattle by choice. But there are plenty of people living on forest land who do so because they've lost their home. National Forest folks I interviewed were, to a person, openly sympathetic about the plight of people who have nowhere else to live; but even though these are public lands, you just can't live there.

The other confusing aspect for me, and a topic on which I hope to one day produce a talk show discussion, is how land gets designated as protected, public land, and what agency or government regulates it. There are city and state parks, national forests, national monuments, wilderness areas and refuges, national parks, forest preserves, nature preserves ... the list goes on. I would love to read (or maybe make) a map of a state (say, Arizona) that shows who controls what public land, and how it got that way. But that's a project, and maybe a blog post, for another day.