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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, 2018 at 14:21
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    Is there US land like that? I thought we ran out of free land.
    – user4460
    May 4, 2018 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?"? May 4, 2018 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, 2018 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, 2018 at 19:33

3 Answers 3

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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.

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  • 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, 2018 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. May 4, 2018 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, 2018 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". May 4, 2018 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, 2018 at 21:18
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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.

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  • I'm confused. I thought all federal homesteading was ended 30 years ago, with the Federal Land Policy and Management Act.
    – user6726
    May 4, 2018 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, 2018 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, 2018 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, 2018 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, 2018 at 19:32
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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.

It's not clear what sort of land you have in mind, and if such land even exists.

  • On land owned by individuals, this is generally illegal. The basic offense is trespassing; if you attempt to build stuff or chop down trees there may be other charges depending on specific local laws. There are also sometimes squatters' rights laws that grant you a claim after living there for a long time, but none of them apply on day 1.
  • On land owned by private organizations it would be the same story as that owned by individuals, you would just get sued by Acme Inc. instead of John Doe.
  • Land owned by various government agencies is similarly protected. For example, if you sneak into a military base and camp there, it will not go well. Certain agencies, such as the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Nation Park Service (NPS), Department of Agriculture (USDA) and others choose to allow the public to use land they own. This will usually come with certain restrictions which clearly spell out what you can and cannot do, and you are assumed to agree to them by entering the area. Almost none of them allow you to take up long term residence or construct dwellings without explicit permission.

As an example, most NPS parks will say you can camp up to 14 days at a time. How and where you can camp is restricted to some extent, but usually the restrictions are reasonable and you can camp in the backcountry in most parks. I believe they don't mind it if you camp at park A for 14 days, then camp at park B for 14 days, and repeat - of course you won't be able to indicate the park as your permanent address on tax forms and other documents. Typically parks will have a "camp host" who is allowed to live there long term, in a tent or RV, in exchange for some minor duties that help manage the campsite. This sounds closest to what you describe, but of course it's something you officially agree on with the park, you don't just show up and do it. NPS would not normally allow you to build a cabin (if you are an employee of the park they may let you live in an existing cabin as part of your contract), and if you have an RV it would have to stay in a designated RV area, not wherever in the park.

National Forests and BLM lands sometimes allow you to just go and camp without making a reservation or paying for a campsite. Like parks, they will restrict where RVs and other vehicles can go, and they will not allow you to build structures.

Funnily enough, some National Forests do allow you to harvest wood (chop trees). There is a limit to how much, what you can harvest, and you may be required to get a permit from them first. The permit is not necessarily a complex thing, often it's just a paper slip you get from the office for free or a nominal fee. I believe there are some that do not require any permit (but you do have to follow their rules).

You can also hunt and fish on many public lands, but typically you will need to have appropriate permits. Sometimes these may be bundled with the camping permit, but I've never heard of any government owned land where you can hunt without any sort of license at all.

Your question sounds more like permanently settling rather than living temporarily like hikers, campers, hunters, backpackers and so on. There is almost no land in the US that is not owned by some entity. Almost all land that is owned will not allow you to live there permanently (without a contract) nor build permanent structures. This is probably because allowing people to live permanently on your land and build structures there (without a contract) effectively transfers the claim to them, so nobody would do it any more than they would just gift you the land.

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?

The police would come, take everyone's statements, determine that both of you are (I'm assuming) trespassing, arrest both of you, and both of you would get sued by the owner of the property. You may have some limited ability to sue the other guy for using the property you had in the cabin, but this is underminded by the fact that you didn't even lock the door. You don't get to evict him from it because you don't own it (unless you can demonstrate otherwise) - instead, both of you would get evicted by whoever holds the title to the land. They may or may not be required to return the personal belongings in your cabin. I doubt they would have to return the materials of the cabin or compensate you for it.

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