ALFALFA — In the juniper forests east of Bend, the landscape becomes a chaotic checkerboard of private property and public land, with rural subdivisions butting up against land overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. Sometimes, the lines between public and private property get blurred.
In one such instance, an unnamed dirt road has served several homes in the Juniper Acres area, east of Alfalfa, for around 50 years. But thanks to an incorrect survey, the road was graded a few feet away from where it should have been. As a result, the road, and possibly portions of some of the homes, are private property built on public land.
“It was put in illegally, but it is access to people’s homes,” said Jeff Kitchens, manager of the BLM’s Prineville district.
Incursions like this, known as trespasses, are common in this part of eastern Central Oregon, where even surveyors with the BLM aren’t always entirely sure where public land ends and private property begins. This ambiguity, aided by decades-old surveys that can sometimes be inaccurate, can cause a structure — part of a driveway, or a road, or even an entire house — to be built accidentally or intentionally on land managed by the federal government. Some, like the case of the home owned by Chuck McGrath and Jennipher Grudzien, make local headlines. But in most cases of trespass, the infraction goes unnoticed for long periods of time, and unattended to for even longer.
“We have 1.65 million acres scattered over about a 4.5-million-acre area, with well over 6,000 miles … where we would have a boundary with someone,” said Lisa Clark, spokeswoman for the Prineville district of the BLM. “It’s fantasy that we would be able to get out and touch every piece of land all the time.”
Kitchens said trespasses, which include everything from trash dumped in the woods to decades-old homes built in the wrong spots, occur too frequently to count in his district. These can cause a variety of problems on land that should be public, impacting wildlife, plants and cultural resources, while making it difficult for owners to sell the land.
However, Kitchens said many of the noncompliant structures have been in place for decades, and removing them can do more harm than good for wildlife and humans alike.
“We have to be sensitive,” he said.
While dumping trash and larger items like dilapidated cars and boats on public land is clearly intentional, Kitchens said the majority of larger trespasses happen by accident. When European-Americans began settling in the area in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Clark said they often used surveying techniques that were crude at best.
“Some of the early government land office surveys, the corners are marked with rocks,” Clark said.
While many new homebuyers will look over survey data, the possibility remains that the surveys will be incorrect, leaving the issue unsolved for years. Of course, Dan Weller, supervisory land surveyor for the BLM, said the federal agency’s maps aren’t perfect either.
“Just because it shows on a map as being public land doesn’t mean that it is,” Weller said. “The map could be wrong.”
BLM staff will occasionally notice trespasses while they’re in the field for prescribed burns, forest thinning, or other assignments, but Kitchens said many of the reports come from neighbors or new property owners who notice something amiss.
When investigating a possible trespass, Kitchens said he prefers to reach out to property owners by phone first to let them know the situation. From there, he’ll try to meet face-to-face with the owners to explain. While many homeowners are happy to help, Kitchens said these rural communities attract people looking to avoid government oversight.
The difficulty of getting a surveying team out to examine possible trespasses compounds the problem. Weller said the Prineville district has only one surveying team for the entire 1.65-million-acre area. Newly found trespasses tend to get priority over those that have been in place for years, and plenty slip through the cracks.
Almost all significant trespasses require some public input under the National Environmental Policy Act, though Kitchens emphasized that the bureau is willing to work with landowners to find a solution, ranging from removing the offending structure to selling the land to the private property owner. Going forward, he said the bureau will focus on reaching out to private citizens and to real-estate agents to cut down on the number of trespasses in the district.
“The public and the landowners are our best defense against this happening,” Kitchens said.
— Reporter: 541-617-7818, firstname.lastname@example.org