Great!! We are told the people "own" the national parks, but in reality we are not allowed to use them!
In the summer, forests in U.S. are hot spots for squatters
by Dennis Wagner - Aug. 11, 2009 12:00 AM
The Arizona Republic
For most of the past three years, Mark Reno lived at no cost in the piney woods just north of Payson.
Now, he is beginning a six-month stint in federal prison at taxpayer expense, convicted of setting up an unlawful residence in the Tonto National Forest.
Among the thousands of squatters who become semipermanent denizens on public lands nationwide, Reno appears to be unusual only because he got caught so often that he was finally put behind bars.
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. He said Reno, 57, who was caught at least four times, is the only defendant to be imprisoned.
Reno could not be reached. It is unclear why he chooses to keep returning to the national forest.
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.
"When I first came to this district, I had a guy who built a cabin in the forest," Addison said. "A lot of them have other issues (such as mental illness). I see vets who are still struggling, and there are druggies."
Jon Nelson, patrol captain in the Coconino National Forest, said an annual migration begins when hot weather sets in. "Every summer, we have an influx of residential-use visitors from the desert communities," Nelson said. "It gets too hot in Quartzsite."
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. Nelson said some stay in one location for months or years, damaging the woods, adding to fire dangers and creating sanitation problems.
"If we allowed people to use the national forest for residential purposes," he said, "we'd have tent cities everywhere."
Nelson said rangers recently 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.
Nelson said scofflaw residents play a cat-and-mouse game with rangers, hopscotching from campsite to campsite. Like other homeless folks, they 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.
Two years ago in Florida's Ocala National Forest, rangers evicted about 500 residents from shantytowns after a Boy Scout was assaulted with a knife and after public complaints that the area was a haven for fugitives and drug dealers.
A year earlier, the Forest Service near Steamboat Springs, Colo., doled out citations to members of the Rainbow Family of Living Light, a gathering of 10,000 free spirits who converged on the Routt National Forest.
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.
Reno has no known criminal record. His background remains obscure. [hmmm so he is a harmless person. other then the government goons don't like him living in a forest he and the rest of the public owns!] Craig Orent, a federal public defender who represented Reno, declined to comment.
Bill Tonstad, a Payson liquor-store owner, said he has known Reno for about five years. Tonstad said he helped Reno find work and housing several times, but Reno always wound up back in the woods. Reno roamed a circuit of local churches for free food, he added, and washed dishes at several restaurants, but nothing stuck.
"He just used the system," Tonstad said. "I hired him to do some painting once but had to fire him because he didn't show up."
Nancy Greene, manager of the Rye Creek Bar & Restaurant south of Payson, said Reno washed dishes there for a few months last year, living in a trailer out back.
"One day he was working, and the next he never came back," Greene said. "I couldn't understand why. . . . He never called. Never said goodbye."
Tonstad said that was typical for Reno. "He's lived in the forest all his life. I guess the best answer is: He just doesn't like working."
U.S. District Court records tell the story:
In January 2008, Reno was cited by a sheriff's deputy for trespassing in the Tonto National Forest, living in a trailer off Arizona 87, surrounded by garbage and human waste. Six weeks later, a forest ranger found him in the same location. Reno said a friend gave him the trailer and towed it to the location. Its tires had gone flat and were mired in mud.
Reno was cited again. After pleading guilty, he was placed on probation, banned from the forest, ordered to clean up the mess and required to do community service.
Court records show that Reno violated all the probation terms, and an arrest warrant was issued. In January, Reno was found and arrested at a new campsite, just north of Payson. Three tents were surrounded by trash.
Six months later, Reno was back at the same camp. A forest ranger's report describes the scene: "I saw bottles of urine and fecal matter with toilet paper strewn about in various locations. It appeared that food wrappers and cans had been consumed and thrown about the area."
Reno was arrested and held without bail. He admitted violating probation and residing in the forest illegally.
Last month, U.S. Magistrate Edward Voss sentenced Reno to prison, followed by 180 days at a halfway house. He got two years' probation, plus 100 hours of community service.
Reno is banned from the national forests.