Letter: Buying Land Inside a National Forest

Hugh and Jim,

I have been reading SurvivalBlog for several years now. I’m retiring next year and am currently looking for our retirement “farm”. I never refer to it as my survival retreat. I have seen several properties for sale, apparently, inside national forests. Some have even been working farms. We have several national forests here in Michigan and many people live and apparently own land inside of these forests.

My questions are: What are the ramifications of owning land within a National Forest? Do I own the trees on the land, do I own the ponds, streams, etc.? What are the normal deed restrictions that I am likely to run into? Also, I am curious about mineral rights. Does the FedGov generally keep the mineral rights, or is that something that I would be negotiating for at purchase? I’m sure there are questions I haven’t asked that I could use the answers to as well.

If owning land in a national forest is viable, it would greatly expand my opportunities. If it is a liability, I don’t want to waste my time.

Thanks to JWR and HJL for your wonderful and informative site. – Charles, in Michigan

JWR Replies: This topic has been discussed several times in the 10 years that SurvivalBlog has been posted.

As a Westerner, my perspective might be slightly skewed, but here is the way I see it: In essence, the three key deciding issues in buying an in-holding of any sort of public land (Forest Service, State Forest, BLM, et cetera) are: A.)deeded year-round access, B.) the nature of the title to the land, and C.) freedom from regulatory or bureaucratic meddling. Unless you have a high level of confidence about those three issues, then I would not recommend buying an in-holding.

The first issue is easy to identify: Deeded year-round access. Unless you have guaranteed access in perpetuity, and in writing, then you don’t really have it. Yes, I know there are centuries of case precedents in Common Law about prescriptive right-of-ways that can be established by a certain number of years of “open and notorious” private use of a road. But a prescriptive right-of-way may have to be proven in court, at great expense. In the absence of a deeded year-round access easement, your ability to access your property in a motor vehicle could be severely restricted. And that restriction could be subject to the whims of just one individual: A BLM Field Supervisor, a Forest Service Supervisor, or a District Ranger. If he or she decides that the road to your “recreational cabin on a patented claim” is only fit for “seasonal use”, then you may end up being locked out of your own property. But in contrast if you have deeded year-round access, then your access is not up to any bureaucrat’s discretion.

The second issue is also easy to identify: The nature of the title to the land. Is the land held by a standard land title deed, by a patented (permanent)mining claim, by a 99-year lease, or is it just a renewable Federal mining claim? The first three of these are fairly straightforward, but the last one is a veritable bucket of worms that can lead to disputes that can spiral out of control. My general advice is to never buy a mining claim unless it is an undisputed and indisputable patented claim. You and your heirs never have to lift a shovel to keep a patented claim, forever.But regardless of the nature of your deed you will of course need to carefully research any other right-of-ways or easements attached to the property. These can include easements granted in the past to adjoining land owners, to power companies, to phone companies, to back-country lease cattle grazers, et cetera. And, as with any other rural land purchase, you should not neglect researching the water, timber, mining, and oil/gas rights to your property. These vary widely, so do your homework.

The third issue is harder to pin-down: Freedom from regulatory or bureaucratic meddling. To determine how well land-owners are treated by the”host” government agency, you really need to sit down and talk with other in-holding land owners in the region. Ask them what has gone on, over the course of successive presidential administrations and changes of local bureau administrators. Have there been any disputes? How amicably have road work expenses been covered or shared? Has the “host” government agency been politely” or have they been meddlesome and nosy? Have they had a “hands off” mentality or have they been meddlesome and nosy? Have employees of the agency or agencies tromped through private properties unannounced? Do they (or anyone else) have their own deeded right-of-way through your property? (And if so, does that mean vehicular or strictly on foot?) Has the government paid to fence out livestock,or have they forced land owners to construct fences at their own expense? And lastly, what is the general attitude of the government employees? Do they lord over the in-holding land owners, or do they respectfully carry put their business as humble public servants?

In closing: Do your due diligence before buying any piece of land.And the level of scrutiny must be even higher when buying an in-holding. Just like buying land that is inside of the boundaries of an Indian reservation, and in-holding that is within public land means that you will be dealing with an additional layer of authority. Do the requisite research, or you may regret it!