Can one chop down trees, build a cabin, and just park there?

The question is about living on land that is not owned by a private individual in the USA, and is not designated as a state park or designated wildlife refuge, which have more restrictions.

Suppose you left your cabin door open by mistake and someone else came in and doesn't want to leave your cabin. What would happen if you called police?

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    You can claim anything, but it's unlikely to be a successful claim unless you buy the property from its current owner. But see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Squatting, which notes that "In the United States, squatting laws vary from state to state and city to city." In your secondary question, it looks rather like you are the squatter, and "someone else" is perhaps trespassing. – phoog May 4 at 14:21
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    Is there US land like that? I thought we ran out of free land. – user4460 May 4 at 16:07
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    "Land not owned by anybody" (if such a thing exists) is legally different from "land owned by the government". Is your question "what is the legal basis of land ownership?" or "does public land belong to the department/organisation registered as owner or to us as taxpayers?"? – Tim Lymington May 4 at 16:19
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    @larry909 I wouldn't be so sure. Any land not owned by the federal government or a private individual or entity would generally belong to the state. In the past, government-owned lands could be claimed by homesteaders, but that is no longer the case. Also, "we the taxpayers are the owners" is not going to get you anywhere with a land claim any more than it would help you claim ownership of a government-owned vehicle or help a corporate shareholder claim a right to use the company jet. – phoog May 4 at 17:07
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    @larry909 No. there are regulations that prohibit using public land in that way without permission. – ohwilleke May 4 at 19:33

Much of "the woods" is owned by the US government, where your chances of any degree of success are highly variable. It is extremely unlikely that you can get away with it at all on a military base or in a national park. You may be able to get away with it for longer on Forest Service land (legally speaking, you're supposed to move along after 14 days), but if you're looking for a permanent legal claim to the land, that will not happen without an act of Congress. If public domain land has valuable minerals which you exploit, you may be able to chop down trees and build a cabin, but until Congress lifts the moratorium on mining claims patents, you cannot gain title to the land. (Public domain land is land not set aside for a specific purpose, such as a national park or wilderness area).

Another possibility is to seize the land through adverse possession, as long as you satisfy the requirements for such an action in the state in question. Chopping down trees and building a cabin probably satisfy the requirements of actual possession, openness and notoriety. You would have to continuously live there for 5-30 years, depending on state, and have to have exclusive use of the land. If you get found and the owner tells you to leave (whether or not they get a court order), or if they say "I'll let you stay for a while", or they do a bit of landscaping, then you can't take the land (or, the clock restarts). There are a number of state-specific quirks such as whether you have to believe that the land is actually yours. Also, you can't dispossess a government.

At some point, you will have to deal with the county, since you built the cabin without a permit.

  • While you accurately state that "you can't dispossess a government", to same the same thing in different language, it is impossible to obtain land owned by the government by adverse possession. – ohwilleke May 4 at 18:43
  • The possession "must be of such character that would give notice to a reasonable person". If it's a remote location, a cabin could easily remain unnoticed, and thus would not be sufficiently notorious. – Acccumulation May 4 at 20:14
  • @Acccumulation, it likely would. The requirement is that you not hide your actions. The fact that nobody visits the area is not relevant. By analogy, if I own 100 acres in Montana, it's not a defense for me to say that I didn't see you living there / using the land because I never went out there. Of course, this comment is about the notorious part and is notwithstanding the fact that one cannot obtain government-owned land by adverse possession, as stated by ohwilleke. – A.fm. May 4 at 21:02
  • @A.fm. "The requirement is that you not hide your actions." The quote I gave says that the possession must be such that it "would give notice to a reasonable person". Not merely "not hide". – Acccumulation May 4 at 21:15
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    Right. A reasonable person who visits their property. If your burrowed yourself a little cave into the side of a hill on the far reaches of my 100 acre plot of land, it likely wouldn’t count. If you built a cabin where a reasonable person would see it, it would count. Same as the “in the woods@ hypo, but again, notwithstanding the scenario’s impossibility. – A.fm. May 4 at 21:18

The conduct that you describe is called "homesteading". The only places in the United States that it is still possible to do that is on public lands in parts of Alaska.

Long term camping and establishing permanent or semipermanent places to live on public lands elsewhere is prohibited in the Continental U.S. and Hawaii and other U.S. territories without permission of the government agency with jurisdiction over those lands.

  • I'm confused. I thought all federal homesteading was ended 30 years ago, with the Federal Land Policy and Management Act. – user6726 May 4 at 18:50
  • @user6726 indeed, the linked document says "Homesteading officially ended on Oct. 21, 1976, with the passage of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act. On that day, the new law repealed all homestead laws nationwide. However, a 10-year extension was allowed in Alaska since it was a new state with fewer settlers. The last time anyone could file any type of homestead claim in Alaska was on Oct. 20, 1986. After that day, no more new homesteading was legal on federal land in Alaska." Also: "The State of Alaska currently has no homesteading program for its lands." – phoog May 4 at 18:58
  • @user6726 then: "In 2012, the State made some state lands available for private ownership through two types of programs: sealed-bid auctions and remote recreation cabin sites. The Alaska Department of Natural Resources has information on its website about these programs." – phoog May 4 at 19:00
  • The state program allowed for purchase (it's cheap), but not just taking over state-owned land. Remote Recreational Cabin Sites is closed, and you don't get title. So it's not clear that that satisfies the OPs desiderata. – user6726 May 4 at 19:18
  • @phoog I stand corrected. The last time I looked into it in detail was when I was in Alaska for a while in 1985 and homesteading was still possible. I hadn't realized that it expired and didn't read the linked document closely. – ohwilleke May 4 at 19:32

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