After growing frustrated with their inability to move illegal squatters off federal forest land because regulations were unclear, the U.S. Forest Service has put teeth into the laws that regulate residential occupancy on mining claims.

After growing frustrated with their inability to move illegal squatters off federal forest land because regulations were unclear, the U.S. Forest Service has put teeth into the laws that regulate residential occupancy on mining claims.

The changes, which take effect nationally on Dec. 8, also revise the definition of an operating plan for miners.

The revisions clarify that a criminal citation can be issued for illegal occupancy, said Bob Fujimoto, group leader for minerals and geology for agency's Region 6 which includes Oregon and Washington.

"In the '80s they did a revision of the regulations, but they didn't make it clear that criminal citations could apply to mining operations," he explained.

"All along we've had the opportunity to use criminal or civil citations," he added. "But when we talked it over with law enforcement officers, they said the language needed to be clearer."

The revisions do not affect occupants on legal mining claims who abide by forest regulations, officials said.

"We've always had a number of people living on claims who said they were mining when they really weren't," Fujimoto said.

"Law enforcement people said the only thing they could cite them for was staying beyond the 14-day limit," he added.

He was referring to the 14-day camping limit on federal forest land. The limit is in place because those who abuse the camping privilege can damage a resource as well as infringe on the right of those who abide by forest laws, officials said.

"When we went down the civil side (of enforcement), it would take years before we would get very far with a case," he said. "When we use a criminal citation, the process is much shorter."

The revised residential occupancy regulations spell out what constitutes residency through construction, reconstruction, improvement, maintenance and use or presence of a temporary or permanent structure.

Authorization for occupancy may be applied for and granted through an operating plan.

"We're not after monetary penalties or go-to-jail penalties," Fujimoto said. "We're after getting them to remove their stuff off public land if they are there illegally."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.