Western housing crisis leads some to live on public lands
A large trailer sits amid fields of sagebrush on public lands outside Boise, Idaho. It’s in nice condition and looks like something you’d see in any campsite.
“We’re out here today just to monitor this camp that's been in overstay for a while now,” says Becky Andres, the BLM’s Idaho State Chief Ranger.
An overstay is someone who occupies a spot on public land longer than a certain limit, usually 14 days. This trailer has been here for about two months.
“We've been patiently working with them as they work through their situation and try to find more sustainable housing,” Andres says.
Bryan Adams is also here. He’s a supervisory field staff ranger with the BLM, and he points to another vehicle nearby. It’s a pickup covered in a camouflage tarp with some items scattered around, including trash.
“This is pretty typical of things we see out on BLM – even more so than an actual trailer is a situation like that,” Adams says.
It’s not new for people to live on public lands. In the '90s, there was even a short-lived camp on Forest Service lands in Oregon specifically for people experiencing homelessness.
And Andrews notes that there was a spike in the number of people living on public lands around 2008 during the Great Recession.
But a super-charged housing market has pushed yet another wave of people to live on Western public lands. Andres says it’s different than the economic downturn 14 years ago. This time, it's not just people losing their jobs, but instead includes many gainfully employed people who simply can’t find an affordable place to live.
On BLM lands in Idaho, Adams says over the last few years he’s seen the number of people living there increase “tenfold, at least."
"It's something we deal with in the field every single day in some way, shape or form," he says.
At another location, there are several vehicles. Some functional, others not. Adams says there are kids there, something he’s also been seeing more of.
“I have a daughter, she’s 6. And seeing the kids in that situation, it’s heartbreaking,” he says. “They shouldn’t be worrying about housing issues when you’re 6 years old. You should be worried about playing.”
Experts say there are more people living on public lands near cities than farther out, for obvious reasons like access to services and supplies.
But there are people of all kinds living on these patches of forest or rangeland. Some may be truly homeless, with challenges gaining employment or staying in shelters due to their personal situation. Others are employed, and simply can’t find sufficient housing in their price range. Still others can afford housing, but prefer isolation.
“A lot of us are really kind of introverts in a way. We like the solitude, the peace and quiet,” says Steve Johnson, someone who used to live on public lands all around the West.
Johnson and his wife used to travel around as nomads, working on their laptops. While they have a house now, he says they may live on public lands again, after a hiatus during the pandemic.
“My wife has often said to people that traveling across the country is probably the most American thing that she's ever done, and probably the most American thing that most Americans can do, because it gets you out and it gets you to learn about your country,” he says.
Johnson now helps run a website called Boondocker’s Bible, a resource for off-grid and free camping. He says living without rent or a mortgage saves money, but he cautions that most true nomads – moving from state to state – aren’t poor.
“I met one guy, lives in a car, he has a tent and he just travels around the country. He's actually an I.T. professional, but he just can't live within neighborhoods, you know, or suburbs or in an urban setting. He just has to be away,” he says.
Lee Cerveny is a social scientist for the Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Research Station. In 2015, she helped survey Forest Service officers to understand what kinds and how many non-recreational campers were out there.
It’s virtually impossible to get an actual count, she says, but officers reported that the largest group of those living on public lands were “senior nomadic campers, people who are living in RVs and moving around.”
The survey also identified students, seasonal employees, and a small, but constant, group of people running from the law
“I guess you could say in an outlaw fashion,” Cerveny says.
For public lands officials, people just traveling through or picking up after themselves aren’t big concerns. Human waste and garbage are.
One Colorado man left about 8,500 pounds of trash in the Uncompahgre National Forest in 2015, which had to be removed via helicopter. That’s not cheap. Cleaning up abandoned vehicles, trailers, and human sewage are costly, too.
Human waste is one of the reasons rules changed around Jackson, Wyo., in the '90s.
Stays on those forest lands near Jackson are limited to five days, according to Mary Cernicek, a Forest Service spokesperson with Bridger-Teton National Forest.
"And after that, our regulation says that the person then must vacate for 30 days before he or she can return to the area,” she says.
That’s compared to 14 days across most national forests.
Cernicek says that's helped keep their forest's human population steady. Rangers (and locals) can monitor that specific area and enforce the rules more, too. Cernicek sent out a press release in February when her agency fined one man $2,000 and banned him from the forest for three years after he was warned and continued living in the forest.
“As a land management agency, the Bridger-Teton is responsible to solve problems associated with resource impacts and public safety. It is not to provide alternatives for communities for housing,” Cernicek says.
If dispersed camping areas – or those without bathrooms or other facilities – are overly abused, officials could close them.
Forest Service officials in northern Colorado say too much camping and people living on public lands forced them to cordon off several dispersed camping areas in the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests in the last few years.
Reagan Cloudman, a spokesperson for those national forests, says safety is an issue, too. What if officials can’t communicate with people in the woods that a wildfire is headed their way? Or what if they start a fire?
“Just the increase of abandoned campfires that we've seen is definitely a concern for recreation, and fire and the communities," she says. "You know, everybody ends up being impacted by severe wildfires.”
Back in Idaho, Becky Andres with BLM Idaho says her agency’s goal is to partner with more social service organizations to help people find housing.
“I really hope that we can educate our public and our society to understand that it's a difficult situation for everybody,” she says.
Andres shares a story from when she worked in Fallon, Nevada. Three people living on public lands there were down on their luck, and one had health issues. Members of the community stepped in to help them find housing, and helped clean up the campsite, too.
“So we removed, I believe it was 60 cubic yards of debris from that location and got everybody resettled in the housing,” she says.
That area was restored for anyone, camper or forest animal, who might want to visit.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
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