Public Dangers on Public Wild Lands

Apr 23, 2015
There's a national movement underway to get more people outdoors and participating in outdoor sports -- The Department of Interior's America's Great Outdoors Initiative. Many organizations at the federal, state and local level are either directly supporting this initiative or conducting their own programs and campaigns to get more people outdoors, and the numbers are increasing. Almost 50% of Americans now engage in one or more outdoor recreation activities.

But as more and more people go hiking, fishing, hunting and enjoy other outdoor sports, there's a problem they may encounter that doesn't seem to be getting enough serious consideration. The woods welcome all equally and not all those who want to get away from it all have the best motives.

Private wildlands are governed by laws that are well-established. You need permission to be there if you are not the landowner. In contrast, As long as you move every two weeks, you can legally live in National Forests. All you need is a P.O. Box, a cell phone, some shelter and an $80 a year interagency pass to legally live on federal lands.

Some studies by the University of Oregon have found that thousands of people are living in National Forests in that state, some just to save money, others to get away from the world. (>link) No one knows just how many people are doing this nation-wide, but there are several Internet websites designed to help homeless folks who survive in the wilds, (>link) and even a Wikihow Internet page with suggestions on how to survive life in the wilds.

So long as people don't break any laws when they are living in the wilds, then they are welcome to do so. However, some folks who can be found on wildlands are there to avoid the law for various reasons and their numbers have been increasing in recent years. Some examples:

In April of 2013, two Utah hunters identified a strange "mountain man" living in the wilds of Utah. They reported him, which after shots were exchanged, led to the arrest of a convicted fugitive, 45 year-old Troy James Knapp.


In 2013 California game wardens played a major role in chasing down fugitive Christopher Dorner who was hiding in the woods after killing four people and wounding others. (>link)

In 2014, murderer Eric Frein, #1 on the FBI's "Most Wanted" list, lived for months in the woods of Pennsylvania before being caught. (>link)

The dangers of being a game warden were demonstrated in 2007 when California Game Warden Joshua Brennan shot and killed 39-year-old Bartyn Pitts after Pitts opened fire on him with a shotgun. Warden Brennan was originally going to cite Pitts for an illegal campfire in a campground, but when Brennan called in to central dispatch while writing the citation, he was told that there was an outstanding warrant for Pitts in Hawaii. When Brennan told Pitts he was going to arrest him, Pitts got a shotgun and started shooting at Brennan, who defended himself. (>link)

While news media are daily flooded with stories about violent crime, since 1994 violent crime in the US in general has dropped over 40%. However, many types of crime in the wilds have increased, ranging from dumping of garbage to robbery and lethal violence and not nearly enough has been said about this. While the economy may be pushing some people into the wilds, federal funding for law enforcement on federal lands has decreased and that has made the problem worse. (>link)

PEER, (Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility) reports that there were 34 incidents involving attacks on US park rangers in 1995, but by 2005 there were 477 – a 13-fold increase. (>link) This is partially due to the number of forest-service law-enforcement officers decreasing by one-third since 1993 as a result of a "steady decline in funding."

PEER reports that today for the entire US there are only 660 Forest Service law-enforcement officers (LEO's) to police USDA Forest Service's 193 million acres – one officer for every 291,000 acres of US Forest Service land and for every 733,000 visitors each year. Other federal agencies are having similar problems with funding for law enforcement. According to PEER, in 2012 reported incidents rose more than 40% in wildlife refuges and in areas patrolled by the U.S. Park Police and by more than 12% in national parks. (>link)

All federal land management agencies would like more help with support for law enforcement. For example, therfe about as many US Fish and Wildlife Service Special Agents as there are whooping cranes. State game wardens also would appreciate more support. Right now there are less than 8,000 state game wardens for the entire US; about ¼ of the New York City Police Force.

The problem of general crime on public recreational wildlands is compounded by organized crime marijuana grows. As of 2014, while California has the greatest number of illegal marijuana grows, at least 20 states and 67 national forests have reported finding large marijuana gardens(>link). For more details on this problem see the book: War In The Woods: Combatting Marijuana Cartels on Pubic Lands by game warden Lt. John Nores. (>link) In addition to dangers to recreationists, these grows also typically use pesticides that poison water sources. (>link)

This is not a pleasant story to tell, especially at this time of the year when people are planning vacations and there is a push to get more people outdoors. But better safe than sorry.

In response to the potential for encountering crime on wildlands, the USDA Forest Service has a publication "Preventing Crime in Our National Forests and Grasslands" that should be read by anyone going into backcountry. (>link)

It doesn't say this in the Forest Service pamphlet, but you could also carry a firearm. It's always been legal to carry firearms in National Forests. As of February 22, 2010, federal law also allows people who can legally possess firearms under applicable federal, state, and local laws, to possess firearms in national parks. To quote the directive: "Persons may lawfully carry any firearm openly that they are otherwise lawfully entitled to possess, and may also carry a concealed handgun if they possess a current and valid concealed handgun permit issued to them." It's illegal to discharge that weapon in the park, however, if it was in self-defense it seems logical that this would be acceptable, so long as it could be proven it was self-defense. Also, there are some areas of the parks where firearms are not permitted. Check this out ahead of time. Since the law has been in place, crime has declined in national parks by about 12%. (>link)

Be safe, and enjoy the woods and help support the brave men and women who protect the wildlands that are so important to all Americans. Sportsmen's groups can help them by volunteering to help clean up trash and busted marijuana gardens that may cost as much as $10,000 an acre to clean up.

-- James A. Swan