Watch out for Squatters

Under federal law, national forests are reserved for recreational use by the public. It is a Class B misdemeanor to set up a residence or to remain in any forest for more than two weeks during a 30-day period. The maximum punishment is a $5,000 fine and six months of incarceration.

No one knows exactly how many people inhabit Arizona’s high country because they strive to avoid detection. Bray Addison, acting patrol captain in the Tonto forest, said rangers recorded 147 incidents with suspected squatters in the past five years, including 39 who were cited.

The squatter phenomenon is a problem on public lands nationwide, especially in Western states, where the federal government owns more than half of all property.

Squatters, more often in RVs or trailers than tents, camp within a few miles of towns where they can find work, buy supplies and take advantage of public services.

Recently rangers found a camp outside Flagstaff that had been occupied for five or six years. He said the resident, who suffers from schizophrenia, was finally located, given medications and placed in a shelter.

Homeless folks generally manage to stay beneath the public radar and out of jail. But there are exceptions, especially when squatters get involved in other crimes or create outback villages.

In the Tonto, rangers and sheriff’s deputies have come across several giant marijuana farms cultivated by illegal immigrants camping in the woods. One operation, discovered in 2006, involved an estimated $30 million worth of cannabis east of Payson. In Northern California, pot farms tended by armed squatters prompted the Bush administration to launch an eradication campaign two years ago.

Source: Dennis Wagner, The Arizona Republic


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