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Arizona county cracking down on illegal campsites

The campground is located on state trust land (private land owned by the state) and generates revenue for programs such as the Arizona School for the Deaf and Blind.

YAVAPAI COUNTY, Ariz. — Drugs, child endangerment and felony arrest warrants are rampant on land just north of Cottonwood, police said. Yavapai County Sheriff's Office.

A small city of sorts has formed over time on state trust land along Bill Gray Road, a popular spot for camping and hiking. Since the pandemic, YCSO says they've seen more and more people living closer to the road. As crime in the area has increased, so have calls to the sheriff's office. That's when Sergeant Steven Warburton began concentrating forest patrols in the area.

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His unit is tasked with enforcing rules and regulations on state trust lands to crack down on illegal camping.

“We will be sending out a group of deputies to contact all individuals who are camping on state trust lands,” Warburton said. “We will be checking permits to make sure they have the necessary permits to be recreational and camping on state trust lands.”

State Trust Lands

State trust land is privately owned by the state and provides revenue for programs such as the Arizona School for the Deaf and Blind and the Arizona State Hospital. It is also one of the main sources of funding for K-12 public schools. The land generates revenue for the state by selling parcels of land or leasing land to ranchers, as in the area around Bill Gray Road.

“The last thing we want is for the campground to get vandalized to the point where it's ruined for everybody, that's our biggest mission,” Warburton said, “Just trying to hold people responsible and make sure they understand the rules, because if they go too far, they end up being closed down because it's too much damage and there are too many issues.”

Camping is allowed on state trust lands with a 14-day permit, and when YCSO began patrolling the area after the pandemic, they found many people without permits, many of whom had been there for longer than 14 days.

Ruin it for everyone

“One of the biggest issues is the lack of respect for the community and the land,” Warburton said. “There's a lot of litter and a lot of crime.”

The area had become a sort of refuge for those hiding out with arrest warrants.

The day 12News followed the police investigation, YCSO was pursuing someone.

“Today, our detective unit will be conducting a search for individuals who are said to be staying at this location,” Warburton explained in a detailed briefing on April 3. “There is a lot of activity occurring here.”

According to the sheriff's office, the increase in illegal camping has made it difficult for legal campers to find a spot and feel safe. A group of hikers called out to Warburton at the scene on April 3 to complain about campers blocking a hiking trail.

Not everyone agrees

The sheriff's office says the crackdown on illegal camps is to keep the area safe and enforce state trust land regulations, but some legal campers don't feel it's a problem worth addressing.

“The land is there, it's our land, we're paying for it,” said Marilyn Neilson, who spends about two-thirds of the year camping in the country. “When we have land that we're paying for and the local council puts up signs saying no camping, it's like buying a house and then being told you can't live in it.”

Looking around, it's hard to tell the difference between state trust lands and national forest lands, where you don't need a permit to camp, and Nielson, a Michigan native, couldn't understand why private individuals could lease state land.

Still, she felt the state's trust land regulations were too aggressive in their enforcement.

“I'm a homeowner myself and own several properties, and I understand not wanting things to be broken, but making people feel like criminals is not the answer,” she said.

It's getting better

Warburton and his unit have made it a point to patrol the Bill Gray Road area once or twice a month for the past few years, and he told 12News that at first it felt like a lawless area.

“When we were first looking into the details, there were child abuse cases and we had to call Child Services a lot,” Warburton said. “There were a lot of arrests on warrants. There was a little bit of everything.”

During the April 3rd raid, conditions improved significantly: three tickets were issued for trespassing and one person was arrested on an outstanding warrant.

“The little details seem to be paying off,” Warburton said. “Before, we were writing a ton of tickets, and before that, we were dealing with a lot of criminal activity that was going on there. Now, it's cleaner. People are following the rules. They do the 14-day limit and then they leave. It seems 10 times better than it was a few years ago.”

Warburton advises people considering camping outside of designated campgrounds to check whether the land is federally, privately or state owned. The Arizona Department of Lands has maps showing land ownership.

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