You may have heard that there is a rule that prohibits camping within 200 feet from a body of water. The rule has been printed in camping guidelines issued by the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife, and even the Army Corps of Engineers. But where did this rule come from? Where is it codified in the U.S. Code or Code of Federal Regulations?
The 200 Feet Water Setback Rule for Camping
The rule states that you cannot camp right up close to a body of water, be it a lake, pond, stream, river, or other. You have to keep your camp at least 200 feet away. This goes for tent campers, RVers, and even folks just throwing a sleeping bag on the ground.
The interesting thing is that the BLM, USFS, NPS, and other federal land management agencies, have actually built developed campgrounds right up close to the water, well within the 200 feet limit. How, therefore, is it legal?
Origins of the 200 Feet Rule
The rule came about during the 1990s, when the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, the actual non-profit organization stewarding the “Leave No Trace” movement, adopted the policy of restricting camping within 200 feet of a body of water. The idea was simply to ensure that non-organic materials would not enter the water and harm aquatic life. It was also to ensure that wildlife would have unfettered access to water.
Leave No Trace’s “Seven Principles” are not law nor regulation. They are simply recommendations that many campers have to come to respect and encourage.
How Do Federal Land Management Agencies Enforce This Rule?
Federal land management agencies do not enforce this rule from a nationwide standpoint. Instead, what these agencies do is post signs, print flyers, and produce video encouraging people to apply the “Seven Principles” of Leave No Trace with their own outdoor recreation.
In 2009, the US Forest Service (USFS), Bureau of Land Management (BLM), US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), National Park Service (NPS), and the Army Corp of Engineers (ACOE), all signed a Memorandum of Understanding (read the MOU here) with the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics to adopt the Seven Principles. The adoption was not to enforce the principles as rule, but to simply create educational materials for visitors.
These agencies, however, have published camping guidelines that are in conflict with the Memorandum of Understanding. These guidelines have been printed into pamphlets or flyers that make it seem as if violating the 200 feet rule can be grounds for citation and removal… Yet, technically, on a national level, these printed materials are not enforceable on their own.
However, each specific field office, forest, or park is free to adopt rules that apply only their areas. Some of these local jurisdictions have in fact adopted the 200 feet rule, and have made it enforceable.
Does the 200 Feet Rule exist as law or regulation anywhere on a Federal Level?
Well, not from a nationwide standpoint.
That is, none of the federal agencies have codified the 200 feet rule into U.S. Code or the Code of Federal Regulations. It is technically not even a rule. It’s a practice, or simply a guideline.
However, all federal land management agencies have rules regarding sanitation when visiting public lands…
- BLM rule § 8365.1-1, “Sanitation”, makes it a violation to, “Pollute or contaminate water supplies or water used for human consumption;”
- USFS rule § 261.11 “Sanitation”, makes it a violation of, “Placing in or near a stream, lake, or other water any substance which does or may pollute a stream, lake, or other water.”
- NPS rule § 2.14 “Sanitation and Refuse”, prohibits, “Polluting or contamination park area waters or water courses”.
- BOR rule § 423.34 “Sanitation”, requires, “You must not bring or improperly dispose of refuse on Reclamation facilities, lands, and waterbodies. Both the owner and the person bringing or disposing refuse may be issued a citation for violating this provision.”
- ACOE rule § 327.9 “Sanitation” state that, “The spilling, pumping, discharge or disposal of contaminants, pollutants or other wastes, including, but not limited to, human or animal waste, petroleum, industrial and commercial products and by-products, on project lands or into project waters is prohibited.”
- USFWS rule § 27.94 “Disposal of Waste” states that, “The littering, disposing, or dumping in any manner of garbage, refuse sewage, sludge, earth, rocks, or other debris on any national wildlife refuge except at points or locations designated by the refuge manager, or the draining or dumping of oil, acids, pesticide wastes, poisons, or any other types of chemical wastes in, or otherwise polluting any waters, water holes, streams or other areas within any national wildlife refuge is prohibited.”
Thus, an agency officer may enforce one of these rules in a more liberal manner, if they choose to do so. It could be as innocent as some mayonnaise squeezing out of your sandwich and dropping on the river bed. It’s probably doubtful you’ll be cited for allowing sandwich dressing to touch water … however the rules are there if an officer really wants to remove you.
Individual Parks, Forests, and Field Offices May Adopt Specific Rules
The BLM, for example, is broken out into State offices, and Local Field Offices. The BLM does allow each state office and local field office to establish its own rules. Hence, it’s possible that a local BLM field office may adopt the 200 feet rule as an official rule. It must post this rule on a sign at or near each affected area, and publish it in the Federal Register, as well as a local newspaper.
Some national forests have adopted this rule, and have made it enforceable, but have taken it to greater extremes. For example, the White River National Forest in Colorado have adopted this rule, but with a 100 foot limitation (see their Recreation Guide, Page 2, sidebar).
Hence, the only way to truly know what the rules are, is to contact the local field office, national park, national forest, etc. and ask.