Public Lands

This Land Is Your Land ... At Least For Now

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If you enjoy using free public lands for recreation… camping, hiking, fishing, kayaking, canoeing, or wildlife-viewing, you need to know that there are proposals to start charging fees for access to public lands in more areas. However I strongly believe that there are things we can do that will help us keep free access.

typical free National Forest camping

Typical free National Forest Campsite
(Firewood included, bring your own table.)

What Can We Do?

Practice compliance, respect, conservation, awareness and gratitude.

In North America today, we’re lucky that land set aside for the public still exists. Land that’s available for everyone, young and old, rich and poor, resident and visitor to enjoy for free!

We’re lucky that the most scenic areas of the continent are also the most rugged and that this land often doesn’t lend itself to any other use but recreation. This allows us to have access to the most amazing scenic camping for free.

Are you, like me, afraid this won’t remain the case?

Native Americans believed that just like the air, sun, wind, and water, the earth belonged to all people and creatures that inhabit it. Then the White Man came and introduced the idea that someone could stake a claim on a piece of land and own it. To the Natives this idea was totally absurd.

Today, not only land but mineral rights and the waters that run through our rivers are bought and sold. We’re starting to expect drinking water to come in bottles from the store and I’m told there are even people selling a piece of the moon.

In today’s culture of enterprise, ownership, and greed, public lands remain free for all to use -- for now.

typical free BLM campsite

Typical free camping on Bureau of Land Management lands
(Bring your own shade and water.)

How Can We Keep Free Camping Free?

Free recreation on public land is a privilege - one we risk losing unless we practice the following principals:

  1. Compliance with the rules when using public land.

    The best place to get the rules is at the regional level. Call or visit the local office for the forest or public land that you are going to use. Find out what the rules are and follow them. They may vary from one location to another. Ask about dispersed camping, campfires, dealing with human waste, off trail hiking, gathering firewood, collecting plants, minerals, etc.

    If you don’t like a rule, ask why it exists. Usually when it makes sense, it’s easier to respect it. But even if it doesn’t…remember that non-compliance often results in loss of privilege. Do you want this area to be available to you next time you visit?

    In recent years, public land agencies are searching for new sources of revenue and often abusing thier mandate. Compliance doesn't mean paying an access fee that shouldn't exist to begin with. Learn more about that and make some noise about it. Join the Western Slope No-Fee Coalition in the fight against access fees.

  2. Respect for nature and other people

    Enjoy the flowers where they grow. Don’t pick them.

    Practice “leave no trace” camping. Take all garbage with you. If you find garbage left behind by others, clean it up and leave the camping area better than you found it. I think of this as one of the "pay it forward" camping rules.

    A lot of the garbage we find near public land camping areas appears to have been around for a long time. Most often there's less than enough to fill one garbage bag, and spending 10 minutes to pick it up, enhances our camping experience for the 2 or 3 days we stay here. Once we pick it up, we find that even two years later, when we return, the site is still clean. If everyone cleans up for the next visitor to the site, (pays it forward,) soon we will all be rewarded by arriving at clean campsites.

    If, on the other hand, public land staff have to be paid to clean up our mess, it makes sense that we will ultimately be paying a fee to cover that cost.

    Respect other campers. Don’t run generators or play loud music or radio within earshot.

    Keep an eye out for each other. The more remote your location, the more dependant you are on others, and they on you, for safety and in the event of an emergency.

    The more problems that are reported because of lack of respect, the more likely that rules will change regarding free recreational use.

  3. Conservation of resources

    Conserve the forests. Don’t cut or damage trees for any reason. Use downed wood for campfires. Don’t leave a campfire unattended. Be sure it is out before you leave. Don’t have campfires where and when they are restricted due to high risk of forest fire.

    Conserve water. Drink plenty of water, but don’t waste it, especially in the desert and other dry areas. Don’t pollute. Use biologically friendly soaps and shampoos and wash dishes no less than 50 feet away from streams and rivers.

    Conserve the earth. Don’t drive off-road where prohibited, and even when allowed; be conscious of minimum impact and damage to the terrain. Avoid hiking or driving on wet muddy ground.

    Conserve the wildlife. Don’t hunt or fish out of season. Don’t feed the wildlife or leave your food where they can get at it. Remember that you are the visitor in their home.

  4. Awareness of your surroundings

    Be educated about local hazards…natural ones such as poison ivy, rattlesnakes, bears, etc. and man-made, such as abandoned mines, or crumbling buildings.

    Be aware of the activities of other people. Report to the local office any hazards or damage you discover, whether man-made or natural.

  5. Gratitude for the use of the land

    Stop by the public land office and tell the staff about your experience. Thank them for being there. Sign the guest book. Their funding is often based on being able to show number of visitors.

    After your visit, drop a card or letter, or send an email to the local office to express your gratitude. These gestures will be interpreted as votes and may carry weight when political decisions are made.


It’s my hope that if enough people follow these principals of compliance, respect, conservation, awareness and gratitude, our children and grand children can continue to enjoy the free use of public land - our land!




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