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Imagine the following situation:

A group of friends found a remote spot in a state or national forest that they really like. They keep returning to the place quite often, lately there are at least some members of the group staying overnight at the spot at least once or twice a month. They established a fire ring, surrounded by rocks, and someone dragged few logs around the fire to sit on. They have a rope strung in the trees to hand their food from.

Now some of them have an idea that it would be nice to build few camp benches instead of the logs, and perhaps some primitive wooden shelter. It is clear that there is some sort of limit, they clearly cannot go and build a large log cabin there. There must be some sort of limit between few logs around a circle of rocks for fireplace and a cabin. I am wondering what would still be considered OK, and where one would cross the limit.

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    Is the land managed by State Park Service, National Park Service, or the National Forestry Service? They all have different rules (and I'm assuming this is in the united states) – Clare Steen Apr 3 '12 at 16:02
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    Part of the joy of the great outdoors is seeing nature untouched by man. I'd encourage you to "leave no trace" rather than seeing how far you can push the limit until you break a law. – BMitch Apr 6 '12 at 21:26
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    @BMitch: good point! – Jan Hlavacek Apr 7 '12 at 20:46
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I will suggest that the legality doesn't even matter if the law permits things other visitors will be uncomfortable with. Since other people come to the site between visits from these friends, any one of those "other people" could decide the site was "too civilized" and undo what's been done. I have found picnic tables, stone furniture and the like at campsites in provincial parks, and left it how I found it. But I can easily imagine someone dismantling a structure because they disapprove of it.

The best approach would be to leave the park as undisturbed as possible, and especially where other people might see it and be bothered by it. This is mostly so as not to bother others, but will also reduce the chances of it being removed. Your modifications should not be spotted from the water or the trail, and thus be less likely to offend any other visitor, whether a ranger or a member of the public. Use natural materials. Focus on things that are useful, like log seats and fire rings, and avoid things that look like "marking your territory" or creating a sense of possession. I think a shelter of any kind is definitely over the line.

I'm not talking about the law, but about how other campers will feel when they reach the site. A log and a fire ring: ooh, this is nice. A rope left strung between two trees at perfect tarp height: this is handy. A plywood roof supported by 2x4s connected to trees: what's going on here? And then, even if by some chance what you built was technically legal, it's almost certainly going to be removed anyway. Of course, if the particular park you're in doesn't permit anything, not even fire rings and a log to sit on, then don't even do that. Just don't assume that because it's not illegal it can stay. If other visitors dislike it, it won't stay.

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    I agree with the sentiment, but disagree with the conclusion. Legality does matter, as the op probably wants to avoid arrest and fines. Consideration of fellow hikers also matters, but you're kind of hijacking her question to make your own (valid, but) tangentially related argument. – Russell Steen Apr 3 '12 at 16:31
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    I think you will have your constructions taken down by others sooner than you will be charged, and the fact it might be legal will not preserve your structures. I apologize if that wasn't clear. – Kate Gregory Apr 3 '12 at 17:44
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Since you don't know if this area is national or state & you didn't say which state, I will answer for national forest land.

The National Forest's 14 day law (no more than 14days in one spot/must be away for 7days) applies to equipment as well as persons. If you want to follow the law then leaving benches or fire rings (tents/gear/etc) while you leave is not allowed. They generally leave things that are inviting for people to use them, but I wouldn't push the limit. Building a structure is a show of ownership of sorts, if I were to stumble upon a firepit or some benches I would feel okay to use it. But coming up on a structure is another thing & not only would I feel like I was invading someone's space but I wouldn't feel welcome in that space. You don't own this area, the courteous thing to do is to not act as though you do.

So, unless you (or your friends) have legal ownership over the property, which isn't the case, I would not build a structure on it.

5

You really should not leave anything. I disagree that the fire ring with logs around it is OK. That is only OK if it is in a designated camp site.

Wilderness is just that, and should be left the way you found it to the reasonable extent you can. Obviously you being there is going to have some impact, so it's a matter of degree and what you can reasonably do anything about.

Building a fire is legal in many national forest at certain times, so doing that is not wrong. However, you have the obligation to put things back they way they were within reason. That definitely means not leaving a fire ring of stones, or logs for benches around the fire. You can't obliterate every trace of you being there, but you an spread the ashes a little, after making sure they are really out, of course.

Just leaving your ashes where they burned may be OK in some circumstances, although I wouldn't be happy about it, but anything beyond that is definitely not OK.

3

The US Code of Federal Regulations says (36 CFR 261.10)

The following are prohibited:

(a) Constructing, placing, or maintaining any kind of road, trail, structure, fence, enclosure, communication equipment, significant surface disturbance, or other improvement on National Forest System lands or facilities without a special-use authorization, contract, or approved operating plan when such authorization is required.

(b) Construction, reconstructing, improving, maintaining, occupying or using a residence on National Forest System lands unless authorized by a special-use authorization or approved operating plan when such authorization is required.

Though it's harder to find the applicable code section, multiple Forest Service notices about illegal structures (e.g. this notice about illegal conical stick structures) say the following:

Violators are punishable by a fine of not more than $5,000 for individuals and $10,000 for organizations, imprisonment for not more than six months, or both.

A fire ring and a few logs do not constitute a structure or a significant surface disturbance. In some areas (heavily used, ecologically sensitive, or high fire danger) the Forest Service will prohibit constructing new fire rings, but elsewhere, these are not LNT but they aren't illegal either.

Camp benches border on being structures. An isolated camp bench may not be illegal; start setting up a bunch of them, and the resulting amphitheater will certainly run afoul of 10(a). A long-term wooden shelter is definitely not OK, violating both (a) and (b). Simple survival shelters (e.g. lean-to) are supposed to be dismantled and the materials dispersed when you leave the site.

I know this has been many years since the question was first asked, but the answer that has been marked as correct is dangerously bad advice, both legally and ethically. Saying legality doesn't matter and suggesting that you skirt possible problems by hiding from others is the kind of "how much can I possibly get away with" attitude that is responsible for widespread and lasting damage to our public lands. On your own land, do what you please. On public land, leave no trace.

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    I reject your interpretation of my answer. Minimize the extent to which others see you have changed the landscape. Do not build a structure or anything that implies ownership. Legality "doesn't matter" only because things that may be legal may still be removed by others, therefore you may need to build less than the law might allow. Please remove your incorrect characterizations of my advice or the reference "the answer that has been marked as correct". – Kate Gregory Oct 3 '18 at 17:37
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    Also, despite my previous accolades, the part about the danger of the answer by @KateGregory is exaggerated. Kate did not advocate for negligence and ignorance of good caretaking of the land. Perhaps you read into some specific sentences of it a bit more than Kate meant. The context of it seems to imply that Kate thinks the law is irrelevant because you should seek to be so far on the side of preserving the nature that breaking of the law is far out of sight; the line to be crossed is nowhere in view because you are far from it. – Loduwijk Oct 3 '18 at 17:53
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    Aaron- I should double check on statutory detail. My understanding is that a small lean-to isn't disadvantaged vis-a-vis a tent simply by virtue of being made of branches rather than of silnylon. A small tent you set up when you camp and pack out when you leave doesn't qualify as a structure or residence, and a survival shelter must be either more permanent or more disruptive to run afoul of the prohibition. – Prodicus Oct 3 '18 at 18:31
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    Not "just". You seem to have decided who I am and what I am about and are now reading all the text to "prove" that. Step 1, don't bother others. That's not "hide so you can get away with it", it's "don't bother others." Nobody else has read my answer as you do. I may edit it, but I don't believe it needs it. – Kate Gregory Oct 3 '18 at 19:03
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    @KateGregory Your answer is definitely dangerous in the sense that you can't expect everyone to read it as you meant it. If you open your answer with "legality doesn't matter", some people might take that as the main argument. – Gabriel C. Oct 4 '18 at 12:59

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