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Campers staying past the limit on National Forest land could get a wake-up call

As we reported last month from Flagstaff, a rising homeless population on National Forest land could lead to increased wildfire danger. But it’s not only the homeless who can run afoul of forest restrictions. Campers who stay longer than is legal may face a rude awakening. 

“We are law abiding citizens, and we didn’t mean to break any laws,” James Jakubec said. When Jakubec called our newsroom, he was steamed. He told us he’d been camping on the Kaibab National Forest, north of Williams. He spent time at a few different campsites and met up with friends escaping the heat in Phoenix.

National Forest Rules state that nobody may camp longer than 14 days in a month-long period. Jakubec says he probably was a few days over the limit when he got a middle-of-the-night visit from a Forest Service law enforcement officer with a $275 ticket.

“At 12:36 in the morning, I don’t think that’s right, I think that’s unconstitutional," he said. "I didn’t get any warning.”

“It’s just like, jeez, give us a break,” Jakubec’s friend Ron Yancovitz said. He also recently got a ticket on the Kaibab National Forest. “You’re showing up at, like to me, 7:36 at night? Why didn’t you give me a warning? $275 fine? I get $740 a month on Social Security.”

Unfortunately for Yancovitz and Jakubec, under federal law they’re not entitled to a warning. In fact, violating camping restrictions is a class B misdemeanor, with penalties up to $5,000, six months in prison, or both.

And if it sounds unusual for an officer to give out tickets at all hours, Kaibab National Forest spokeswoman Jackie Banks says patrols are out 24 hours a day, and officers have a great deal of discretion when issuing penalties.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s only been a few days or multiple days, weeks, and we even have people who are trying to set up homes for months and years at a time in the forest,” Banks said.

Jakubec said he stays on forest land a lot, but he lives in Williams. But Yancovitz said he lives full time in his 36-foot motor home.

“To me it’s like, you ever read the Grapes of Wrath? I feel like that," Yancovitz said. "Now at the prime in my life, I feel like a refugee.”

“We want people to come out and camp, we want people to come out and enjoy themselves," Banks said, "but you are not allowed to live on National Forest System land.”

Forest service officials say the past few years have seen more people trying to establish a home on National Forest land, so they’re especially vigilant about keeping track of campers who stay past the 14-day limit.