Well, that's not the most straightforward question to answer without research.
Before we talk about Public Lands and what they look like today, it is imperative to acknowledge that the land was stolen from Indigenous people.
I want to recognize that before the United States became the United States, this land belonged to the Indigenous Peoples from hundreds of tribes. They took care of this land and have been a part of it for time immemorial. White settlers took the land and murdered the people who cared for the land and ran free. Giving acknowledgment that the public lands we get to enjoy came at the cost of human life and rights is an important part of every public land conversation. This is also why I believe we must care for the earth and its inhabitants.
If you want to learn more, I recommend following Indigenous Women Hike over on Instagram.
IWH is an Instagram community and Indigenous activism account run by Jolie Varela. Ms. Varela's account is an excellent place to begin learning about the land beneath your feet, the relationship that Indigenous people have with the land, and the barriers they face in accessing the land and reclaiming it.
If you're not on Instagram, they have additional platforms. Just use your favorite search engine and look up "Indigenous Women Hike." Each platform has ways in which you can learn about their work and how to support their efforts.
Now, let's start looking at modern Public lands and their guidelines and laws.
In the USA, think of government as a hierarchy:
Federal - within Federal are several agencies which we'll go into later.
State: There are state laws, then there are laws and regulations for state agencies such as the Department of Natural Resources or Department of State Lands, State Parks, etc. And in some cases, such as in Oregon, State Parks may have exceptions for certain places - give Rooster Rock as an example, or Collins Beach, which is managed by the Ore Dept of Fish and Wildlife.
Local - and local can mean county, city, or even Census-Designated Place or even a special district like a water district or special parks district.
For those of you who are already lost - I feel you. Laws about skinnydipping and public nudity can be hard to find and difficult to understand. It's easier to keep control of the population when people are scared of getting fined, arrested, or labeled a sexual deviant for simply wanting to enjoy some time in an open space without clothes on.
Generally speaking, and again, this is generally speaking, because there always seems to be an exception somewhere for some reason - that's how politics work. I can personally attest to being present in a room of lawmakers (I was one of them) where we drafted language to be buried in a state legislative bill that would have required certain laws to be applied within a 5-acre city boundary.
If you're not familiar with my background, I was the mayor of a city in Oregon for six years and have been in local government since 1995. Much of that time has been spent diving into land-use laws and zoning as well as jurisdictional overlaps. I've had the opportunity to work with various county, state, and federal lawmakers, lobbyists, and activists along the way. Some of the best groups to work with to help make positive change have been grassroots activist organizations. Passion fuels change. Directing that passion to the right places can make all the difference in the world in getting shit accomplished in the sea of red tape that is the government.
That's probably all for another podcast.
Before I start running down the things to be looking for, I'd like you all to know that if you're a paid community member, you don't need to take as many notes on all this. While Mandy is out RoadTripping and SkinnyDipping, I'm going to be working on updating our regional forums with Public Lands resources to navigate your hiking and hot springs adventures safely.
I'll also be including some tips so you don't end up on the Twitter Page "Am I The Asshole." For example, when I go nude hiking, I take things with me to wrap up quickly if I encounter a group that is also enjoying the outdoors, but their culture is not accepting of people hiking buck-ass naked in a shared environment. Yes, I want to enjoy as much pants-free time as possible. Still, I also recognize that some laws and regulations are written in such a way that is so ambiguous that I could get hassled at the least and fined or jailed just because I didn't want to cover up because "there's no law that says I can't."
So, let's start peeling back this onion by hierarchy layer.
Starting with the Federal Government.
Some federal agencies don't have regulations against being naked, but others do. Additionally, some of the agencies with no regulations will allow the state or local law to take precedence over federal regulations.
I say regulations because the Federal Government has not addressed public nudity as a law. Laws tend to be general, whereas regulations contain the granular detail of specific areas, lands, or programs.
US Forest Service - They manage all National Forests and National Grasslands.
They've included public nudity in its regulations under prohibitions. So, right off the bat, you know that If you're on a US Forest Service property, it's not allowed. Also, note that the Federal government has not updated language to be gender-neutral or recognize more than two genders.
§ 261.2 Prohibitions > Definitions – Publicly Nude means nude in any place where a person may be observed by another person. Any person is nude if the person has failed to cover the rectal area, pubic area, or genitals. A female person is also nude if she has failed to cover both breasts below a point immediately above the top of the areola. Each such covering must be fully opaque. No person under the age of 10 years shall be considered publicly nude.
National Park Service - There are 63 protected areas in the USA known as National Parks.
The National Park Service does not ban public nudity on a national scale - but each park can set its own rules. For example, at Cape Cod National Seashore in Massachusetts, it is prohibited to be nude on the land or the water within this National Park's boundaries.
I feel a National Park Skinny Dipping guide coming soon to a SkinnyDipper community near you. Frankly, I've heard most often that the National Parks officers are some of the friendliest to meet - so I think it's worthy of a navigation guide.
US Fish and Wildlife Service covers a great many Public Lands and Waters. They focus on Wildlife Conservation, Human Recreation, and they partner with local communities.
They don't ban public nudity in wildlife refuges, but they do recognize state and local jurisdictions' laws and regulations. So if you're on a national wildlife refuge in a state that doesn't allow public nudity on public land, then you'd be subject to the applicable fine or punishment.
§ 27.83 Indecency and disorderly conduct – Any act of indecency or disorderly conduct as defined by State or local laws is prohibited on any national wildlife refuge.
The one I particularly enjoy the most is BLM - that's the Bureau of Land Management. Why? They seem to allow the most flexibility for people who want to be freed of bifurcated hiking.
The BLM manages about 10% of the overall area of the United States. How many acres does that equate to? Roughly 190,000,000 acres. Congress tasked the BLM with a mandate of managing public lands for a variety of uses such as energy development, livestock grazing, recreation, and timber harvesting while ensuring natural, cultural, and historic resources are maintained for present and future use.
The BLM allows state and local laws to apply, and it's often up to the local jurisdiction to enforce those laws as there are very few BLM officers.
Then there's the Army Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation. Both agencies also follow local and state laws, and frequently these areas are places where it doesn't make as much sense to recreate nude anyway, so as we build out the guides online, we'll likely stick to the major land access areas.
Every state is different. States use terms like "Indecent Exposure," often with a definition of what that indecent exposure is to them. In some states, women's breasts are considered indecent, where men are not. And most states have not attempted to be gender inclusive. Some states are so specific about what defines Indecent Exposure that they may specifically list things like "the bottom 50% of the areola". Or displaying sex organs to a person under a certain age.
Again, in our paid community, I'll be working on links state by state in the regional forums. I have much of the research done, so it's just a matter of getting it in the community for you all to use.
Some of the other terms you should specifically watch for is "expose, lewd, arousal, vulgar." Each state may have a slightly different definition of what those terms mean. The bottom line is that you could be legally enjoying a beach holding hands with your partner nude and be completely legal in one state, but the next state over your behavior would be considered lewd or attempting to arouse. So it is important to know the different definitions. Know your home state by heart and look up the states you visit.
LAST PIECE - LOCAL LAWS
This is probably the most complex piece to explain how to look up nude laws.
The space you want to visit is it:
In a city?
In an unincorporated area of a county?
Is the public land managed by a government entity such as a water district, a park district, a conservation district? Is the land part of a public/private partnership?
Often you can go to the local county assessor's map online to get all that info, but then you still need to do the law research. We're working on the tips and tricks to help make this research more straightforward, and we always appreciate having the voices and experience of our SkinnyDipper community!
Spending a little time researching in advance can save you hundreds of dollars in fines and potentially an embarrassing situation such as being hauled off in a pair of metal locking bracelets by people in uniform.