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Camping on Federal Lands

By: Jim Foreman

The Federal Government owns 15% of all the land area in the US and with few exceptions, it is open to anyone who wishes to use it. This includes National Forest Lands, Bureau of Land Management, Corps of Engineers, Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Department of the Interior, National Park Service, the military and a scad of other agencies. Many of them offer some great boondocking opportunities for people who just want to get away from the noise and congestion and enjoy nature. The hardest problem in many cases is finding just what lands the government owns. If a rancher has land leased for grazing cattle, don't expect him to advertise that it's open for camping.

The government is highly posssessive of any land they acquire for whatever reason and while they may rent it out, lease it to other agencies and simply let it set idle, they hesitate to sell an acre of it even though it would become a tax revenue producer for the county and state where it is located. They have millions of acres of land bought during WW-II for gunnery ranges but refuse to either sell or return to the original owerns. Even though lands may be leased for cattle grazing, logging, water conservation, mining or other uses, they remain open for recreational use. This includes hunting, fishing, camping and all other recreational uses.

Under a limited number of reasons, lands may be declared as non-accessible--in other words, you can't use them. They can also have certain restrictions placed on them pretaining to access, wilderness areas are a good example. Limitiations to access can be placed on lands where certain kinds of traffic would cause environmental damage. Where there limitations of any sort, the managing agency must publish a booklet of these restrictions and the reasons for them.

National Forest and National Park lands can be found as easily as picking up a road map. BLM, Corps of Engineers and Indian Trust Lands are seldom ever shown on such maps. The best way to find federal lands is to write or call all the different agencies which might have control of lands in a certain state or area and ask for maps and regulations. Another way is to contact your congressman and ask him to request maps for you.

There are certain areas, such as the high desert in California, where you must buy an annual entry permit; however the cost is usually fairly low. In other places where there will be a local office where the manager of that particular land can be contacted. While it's not required, it is a good idea to let this person know that you will be on the land, the general areea where you will be camped and the length of time you expect to remain. It's just a good personal relations gesture. He will also fill you in on any restrictions which may be in place.

So next time you want to take advantage of the "self-contained" features of your RV, or simply go pitch a tent, think of all those lands your tax dollars have not only bought but continue to pay for their upkeep. They are yours to use, so you should. The only cavaet is to take only picures and leave no evidence of your having been there.