Bonnie Belza: BLM Wisdom As Good As Gold

Bonnie Belza gives us her insights from working at the Arizona Bureau of Land Management Office in Phoenix.  Oh, and she and her husband are truck camping gold prospectors!


It’s amazing how one thing leads to another.  After we ran Tom Umholtz’s article on off-road rock hounding last October, Bonnie Belza contacted us with some inside information on the rules of rock hounding on BLM lands.  Not only does Bonnie work for the Bureau of Land Management in Arizona, but she’s also an avid truck camper, a National Park enthusiast, and, along with her husband, quite the gold prospector.  We didn’t need dredge or pan for long to realize we had struck a mother lode of information and discovered an amazing article for Truck Camper Magazine.


Tell us how you got into camping.
Bonnie: I grew up in Arizona and my dad would take me and my two sisters tent camping around the West in our station wagon.  We would also go east to visit family.  My son and I did some camping with a tent when he was twelve.  Since then, I haven’t had the opportunity to camp until about five years ago with my husband.  He is a prospector.  
TCM: Why did you get a truck camper?
Bonnie: We initially had a fifth wheel, which was good for long stays, but awkward for getting up and going someplace spur of the moment.  We got our truck camper two years ago to have something for short trips.  We originally thought we would stay in one place for while, but now we enjoy staying somewhere for a couple days and then moving on.  Someday maybe we’ll get a fifth wheel again to stay in places for long periods of time, but we’ll keep our truck camper to travel for a week or a month.


 belza-galesburg-il.jpg  belza-lewisnclark--sp.jpg  belza-shenandoah--np.jpg

TCM: How did you get your S&S camper?
Bonnie: We had an accident with the fifth wheel in which we hit an oil spill and jackknifed.  The fifth wheel was okay, but we needed a new truck.  We bought a new long bed truck and said, “Let’s see if we can get something smaller”.  The truck camper was perfect!  We saw an S&S and loved it.  We looked at bigger campers, but our truck couldn’t handle the weight.  The S&S was a good price and a good match for our truck.
TCM: After the rock hounding article in TCM, you emailed us and told us that you volunteered for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) for two years at the Phoenix District Office in Arizona.  How did you get started as a volunteer at the BLM?
Bonnie: Arizona has the single largest BLM acreage in the United States.  I volunteer at the Phoenix District Office working at the front desk and handling customers.  There are a lot of questions about mining and using all terrain vehicles and quads.  My husband was working on trail maintenance.
Since I volunteered for a couple of years, I got an America the Beautiful Pass to see the National Parks.  If you have enough hours, you can get a free pass for a year.  It’s a good deal.  When we did our National Park tour, we were able to get into the ten parks we visited for free.
TCM: As someone who has worked at a BLM field office, can you tell our readers a bit about BLM lands and what they’re used for?
Bonnie: BLM is federal land that is accessible to everyone.  You can go out and prospecting and rock hounding on BLM land.  There are some guidelines on the BLM website.
Basically, BLM manages the land as part of the Department of the Interior.  There are a whole lot of things people use the land for other than recreation.  There are areas used for cattle grazing and logging.  BLM has also become involved in environmental preservation, endangered species, watersheds, and the prevention of land misuse.

 belza-narrows.jpg  belza-wright-patterson-afb.jpg  belza-west-branch-sp.jpg


TCM: Most people are curious about truck camping on BLM lands since it is usually free to camp on BLM land.  What are rules for truck camping?
Bonnie: BLM lands are public lands anyone can use.  If you want to go boondocking on BLM lands, visit the website.  The general rule is that you can boondock on BLM land for fourteen days for free and then you have to move on.  There are campgrounds on BLM land like Burrow Creek here in Arizona in between Phoenix and Vegas.  It’s a BLM campground with a campground host and water hook-ups.
When you’re researching BLM land, you will notice that most of the BLM land is west of the Mississippi.  Online they use Geolocator to show you maps of BLM land.  For example, if you are a prospector, it can tell you if there are any other claims in a particular area.  The BLM land rights originated in 1800’s so it gets complicated sometimes.  You can also go to BLM offices to get maps that will show you the different jurisdictions.
South of Interstate 8 here in Arizona, there is BLM land, military land, and a US military base.  You need passes to go to certain BLM areas.  BLM offices can issue those passes.  You even have to watch a video to go into some places, but once you go, there are gigantic tracks of land you can go to explore.  A truck camper is a good way to do it.  There is a feeling of being in an explorer in America when you’re out on BLM land.
TCM: How do you know where you can go on BLM land?
Bonnie: Many BLM areas do not have roads, so the BLM offices will give you maps to the dirt roads and tell you the condition of the roads.  You can contact the office responsible for the area you want to visit and order the maps.  Those maps will identify highways, roads, structures, water features, and BLM recreation sites.
You’ve probably heard of Quartzsite, Arizona.  That land is BLM land.  They have long term camping where people can stay in Quartzsite more than fourteen days in a row.  That’s a popular example of where people go camping on BLM land.
There’s a lot of BLM recreation sites where people go on marked trails with their horses as a group.  There are also ATV races and other scheduled events on BLM land.  You should also check out the information centers and kiosks with rules on gathering rocks and mementos.
TCM: While volunteering at the Phoenix District office, did you see many truck campers dry camping on BLM land?
Bonnie: We haven’t done a lot of boondocking.  I’m a bit of a princess.  My husband, Mike, will take the camper and go out.  

Tell us about your gold prospecting trips.
Bonnie: We went to the Northern Klamath River basin with a gold prospecting club.  There we prospect for gold with a specialized piece of equipment called a classifier.  Dirt is poured into the top of the classifier and it shakes the dirt until the lighter material pours out the bottom.  Gold is very heavy so it stays on the classifier.  We also go under water using a dredge with a suction hose to find the gold that settles on the bottom of the river.  
Many of the places we go prospecting are public lands.  The claim we work with the prospecting club belongs to the prospecting club.  We also visit ghost towns and old mining towns.


 belza-grand-tetons.jpg  belza-yellowstone--np.jpg  belza-yellowstone-np.jpg

TCM: Tell us about your tour of the National Parks in 2010.
Bonnie: For our National Park trip, we started in North Carolina and went up to Great Smoky Mountain National Park and Shenandoah National Park.  We also went to Lancaster, Pennsylvania and stayed in Intercourse.  After that we went to Gettysburg.  
We worked our way west to the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, in Ohio and then across Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa.  We went north to the Badlands National Park in South Dakota and visited Mount Rushmore National Memorial, Rapid City, and Wind Cave National Park.  As you’re walking down the stairs of Wind Cave, your shoulders are touching the cave walls and there’s a constant wind. 

After that, we went south to Yellowstone National Park where it snowed in May and then went further south to the Grand Tetons National Park.  That was about three weeks from North Carolina back home to Phoenix.
TCM: After your trip, do you have a favorite National Park?
Bonnie: I’m a mountain girl.  Yellowstone National Park was very impressive to me and it was amazing to see buffalo near our truck.  The Badlands were beautiful and had unusual scenery.  It’s all massive land.  
I’d really like to go back to Yellowstone when it’s not so cold.  The National Parks all have their own unique character.  I also enjoyed the fog in the Shenandoah in the early morning.  It’s a thick lush area in comparison to the West where it’s mostly barren.

What else do you use your truck camper for?
Bonnie: We’ve used our camper for cross country trips.  We have children in North Carolina.  When we visit them we use our camper as a second home.  Mike uses the camper when he wants to go out prospecting.  And we use the camper to go up to Northern Arizona when it gets really hot here in Phoenix.  We can go to a lake or forest where it’s cooler.
One of the reasons we bought the S&S is because the previous owners took care of it.  It also has solar panels, batteries, double propane tanks, a three way refrigerator, and excellent insulation.  We haven’t been too cold or too hot.  We’re real happy with it.
Our dream is to take our camper to Alaska.  It’s like 5,000 miles to Chicken, Alaska where we can go gold prospecting.  Maybe we’ll go to Glacier National Park, into British Columbia, and then up into Alaska.
TCM: And visit S&S Campers in Kalispell on the way.  They’re not too far south of Glacier National Park.  Are you still working for the BLM?
Bonnie: No, but I have work that I can do on the road and the camper is my portable office.  I have internet access with a Verizon MIFI and we can both be on the internet at the same time with it.  In the evenings I can work and blog, so our family can keep track of us.  We show them where we’ve gone and what we’ve seen.
TCM: We have a Verizon MIFI and love it.  Is there anything that we didn’t ask about BLM lands or traveling in your truck camper that you’d like to add to your article?
Bonnie: The guys love their trucks.  Ladies out there should encourage the guys to go where the ladies want to go.  I’ve had my husband take me to quilt shows and wine tours and birding events and classes on crafts.  With a truck camper you can have home with you while you take classes.  
I want to encourage the ladies to look at truck camping as a way to do things you may not have thought of.  You find places you never would have known.  Whatever your passion is, you can do it and you can have more fun with a truck camper.
TCM: I completely agree Bonnie.  And thank you for talking to us about BLM and your truck camping passions.
Bonnie: You’re welcome.

Truck: 2007 Chevy Silverado 2500HD, crew cab, single rear wheel, long bed, 4x2, gas
Camper: 2005 S&S Ponderosa 9.5’ FBSC non-slide
Tie-downs and Turnbuckles: Happijac
Suspension Enhancements: Airlift Air Bags
Gear: Solar panel, VuCube satellite TV antenna