Public Lands

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

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.

typical free National Forest camping

Typical free National Forest Campsite

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. To help prevent that, we need to 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, often abusing their mandate by engaging in illegal fee collection. Compliance does not mean paying an access fee that shouldn't exist to begin with! To learn more about what constitutes an illegal fee, what happens if you don't pay it, and how you can join others who are making some noise about it, check out the Western Slope No-Fee Coalition .

  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 consider this a "pay it forward" camping rule.

    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 just ten minutes spent picking it up will enhance our camping experience for our entire stay. Once we've done this, we often find that when we return - even it's two years later - the site is still clean. If everyone cleans up for the next visitor (pays it forward,) soon we will all be rewarded by arriving at clean campsites.

    If, on the other hand, the public lands agency has to pay someone to clean up our mess, it stands to reason that they'll either close the area or start charging a fee. Since they must provide minimum but specific services to legally charge a fee, it's more likely they'll just block access to the area. This has, in fact, happened to several of our favorite free public land camping areas in the southwest. They say the closures are temporary, but, even after ten years, they haven't reversed any of the closures. When we abuse this privilege, we seem to lose it permanently.

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

  3. Conservation of resources

    Conserve the forests. Don’t cut or damage trees for any reason. Only use downed wood for campfires (if permitted). 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. Where it's allowed, be conscious of minimum impact and damage to the terrain and vegetation. 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: we are the visitors 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 grandchildren can continue to enjoy the free use of public land - our land!

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All tips and advice on this web site are purely the personal opinion of the author who assumes no responsibility or liability for any consequences resulting from following said advice.