Not all land inside a national forest or national park is public.
A lot of this land is privately owned by residents, businesses, and organizations. Some national forests and grasslands are so heavily filled with private property, their boundaries have more holes than a slice of swiss cheese.
Why There is Private Property Inside National Forests and Parks
These lands are referred to as, “inholdings”, and people who own them are called, “inholders”.
This land was private property before a national forest or national park came into existence. In most cases, these lands were deeded as part of the Homestead Act of 1862, and were passed down by generation or sold to others. Often times, the federal government will expand the boundaries of a national forest or park by buying up adjacent properties and slowly create islands of private land.
Can I Camp or Drive Through Inholdings?
No, you cannot.
It’s private property, plain and simple, no different than private property anywhere else. Even though an inholding may be within the greater “shell” of a national forest or national park, it is technically not inside USFS or NPS boundaries. These inholdings are islands that are exempt from laws and rules specific to the USFS and NPS.
Google Maps is Misleading
When you view a national forest or national park on Google Maps, you will see large, green-colored, polygonal shape that appears to consume whole towns and cities. This does not mean the town or city is part of the national forest or national park. It’s just that Google Maps is showing you the outer “shell” of the forest or park, and not official boundaries.
Too Many People Trespass Into Inholdings
Because so many RVers and campers rely on Google Maps, they often trespass into private property. Never rely on Google Maps to find the boundaries of a national forest, park, or grassland.
Inholders Put Up Illegal Fences, Gates, and Signs
Inholders often extend their fencing and gates well into federal land as a way to keep campers out of their sight. Because RVing and camping has become so popular, many of these property owners wake up to see tents and motorhomes 20 or 30 feet away from their property line. It’s illegal for them to extend fencing beyond their inholdings, which is why it’s so important for you to know exactly where federal boundaries lie.
How to Find the Official Boundaries of a National Forest or National Park
With respect to national forests and grasslands…
- Obtain the Motor Vehicle Use Map (MVUM) for that forest or grassland. This can be obtained from each forest’s or grassland’s visitor center. This will illustrate precisely the boundaries of the forest or grassland, and the boundaries of each inholding.
- Use the FreeRoam app for Android and iPhone devices. This app provides a map that allows you to display a USFS overlay, showing the exact boundaries of the forest or grassland. You can also view this overlay against a satellite map to reveal dirt roads and campsites. This app also includes MVUM images that can be displayed as an overlay.
With respect to national parks…
- Obtain a map from the national park visitor center. This is the same map you are normally handed when you drive up to the park’s entrance. Most of these maps will depict where private property is located. Otherwise, you will have to inquire at a visitor center if you need more details.