What Are My Public Lands?
Planning your next outdoor adventure can be overwhelming. There are so many different parks and monuments worth visiting, each with its own permits and rules to follow. What’s the difference between them? Where should you go?
Choosing the best backpacking meals to bring is one thing (we recommend Food For The Sole #unbiased), but deciding where you want to visit is as vital to an enjoyable outdoor excursion as a full belly. Nature is beautiful no matter where you go, we know that much for certain, but humans have a habit of turning the simple into something confusing.
Below we’ve broken down the different designated public lands so that you have a better idea of what you’re getting into. Whether you’re going on a fishing trip with your buddies, planning a backpacking route with your significant other, or heading out on an epic road trip-- it’s best to know ahead of time whether or not your intended activities are allowed.
And it never hurts to know a bit of outdoor trivia!
The United States has 60 National Parks which are maintained by the National Park Service, an agency within the Department of the Interior. These public lands are created by an act of Congress and signed into law by the President with the mission to “preserve unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System for enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.”
National Parks are our most protected public lands. Priority on these 52.2 million acres is given to outdoor recreation and education with restrictions put in place to prevent hunting, trapping, grazing, mining, foresting, or any other disruptive activities.
These wondrous places are set aside with tourism in mind. From the snow-covered granite peaks of Yosemite to the lower-than-sea-level heatwaves of Death Valley, our National Parks are equipped with adequate facilities, roads, trails, and plenty of gift shops for visitors to enjoy. You’ll always be able to find lodging or well-maintained camping and RV parking at a National Park.
Largest: Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve in Alaska at 13.2 million acres
Smallest: Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas at 5.5 thousand acres
A proclamation from the President is all that is required to instate a National Monument, which is then managed by one or several organizations, including: the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Bureau of Land Management, and more.
Both our largest and smallest parcels of public land are designated as monuments, and they range in diversity from woodland forests to ocean waters to historic structures.
President Theodore Roosevelt established the first National Monument, Devils Tower in Wyoming, when he decided Congress was taking too long to protect it deem it worthy of protection.
Rather than setting aside land for the sake of recreation like that of National Parks, National Monuments are meant to preserve places of “cultural, historical, and scientific significance”, ranging from grand swaths of land such as that of the Giant Sequoia to man-made structures like the Stonewall Inn which commemorates the struggle for LGBT rights in the United States.
Largest: Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in Hawaii at 373 million acres
Smallest: Military Working Dog Teams National Monument in Texas at 0.07 acres
National Forest and Grassland
Consisting of approximately 193 million acres, the USDA Forest Service manages these lands “to maintain and improve the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of current and future generations.”
Whereas resource-gathering activities such as logging may be strictly forbidden in National Parks, they are essential to the long-term sustainability of National Forests and Grasslands.
Recreation is still a big reason for the existence of these public lands, but travellers will find less facilities and infrastructure than that found at the parks and monuments. Hunting, hiking, and off-road vehicles are all in good fun, but beware that much of this land can be difficult to reach and you may be out where few others venture
Land management agencies permit and even encourage private companies to extract natural resources from these lands, but conflicts between environmentalists and conservationists often arise to contest the purpose of National Forests and Grasslands. Private ranches, ski resorts, and other enterprises also reside on these public lands, making for a hodgepodge of intents and purposes.
Largest: Tongass National Forest in Alaska at 17 million acres
Smallest: Tuskegee National Forest in Alabama at 11,252 acres
Pro Tip: Want to have your say in how these lands are managed? The U.S. Forest Service is a division of the United States Department of Agriculture. Write letters, call your representatives, and most importantly-- get out and vote!
The National Wilderness Preservation System designates land that is “administered for the use and enjoyment of the American people in such a manner as will leave them unimpaired for future use and enjoyment as wilderness” to be preserved in their natural condition.
Managed by multiple agencies, wilderness areas tend to cross over into other public lands like National Forests and Parks, but they come with their own management and visitor regulations. Most notably-- human activities are limited to non-motorized recreation such as backpacking, fishing, and horseback riding.
These wilderness areas are often remote and untouched. They are set aside to keep the habitats undeveloped and free of human interference. Even trail maintenance is limited as motorized vehicles and saws are prohibited, leaving trail workers to use hand saws and wheelbarrows as their primary tools.
Largest: Noatak and Gates of the Arctic Wilderness in Alaska at 12.7 million acres
Smallest: Pelican Island Wilderness in Florida at 6 acres
National Wildlife Refuge
Managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, these public lands and waters are set aside “to administer a national network of lands and waters for the conservation, management, and where appropriate restoration of fish, wildlife, and plant resources and their habitats within the United States for the benefit of the present and future generations of Americans.”
Along with creating the first National Monument and getting the ball rolling with National Parks, President Theodore Roosevelt designated Florida’s Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge as the first wildlife refuge in 1903. Want to thank someone for your access to public lands? Give some applause to Teddy Roosevelt.
Recreation, fishing, and hunting are all encouraged activities across these 150 million acres of protected lands. Protection of endangered and threatened species is of the highest priority in these refuges which are home to over 700 species of birds, 220 species of mammals, 250 reptile and amphibian species, and 1000 species of fish.
Largest: Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska at 19.2 million acres
Smallest: Mille Lacs National Wildlife Refuge in Minnesota at 0.57 acres
Bureau of Land Management
Originally called “the land nobody wanted”, these 247.3 million acres west of the Mississippi River are managed to “sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations." The BLM also manages 700 million acres of subsurface mineral estate.
Somewhat managed like National Forests, but with less restrictions in place, BLM land is open to the likes of grazing, mining, deforestation, recreation, and just about everything else under the sun. Much of this land is available for anyone to wander and explore to their heart’s content, though private ranches, farms, and even communities are scattered inside of its borders.
The BLM also manages free-roaming horses and burros across vast stretches of the land, and continually adopts new conservation systems and renewable energy programs under their umbrella. It’s sort of a free-for-all where individuals, corporations, and government agencies get to test all of their zany ideas and push limits they couldn’t get away with elsewhere.
Largest: Nevada segment at 48 million acres
Smallest: Washington segment at 0.4 million acres
There’s a basic rundown of your public lands. While they’re all open to visitors, each has its own unique benefits that can be taken advantage of. Know if you require the well-maintained facilities of a National Park, or if you’re looking for a more rugged experience found in a National Wilderness.
Plan and prepare ahead of time to ensure you have an excellent outdoor experience. You now have the knowledge to get started, and some bits of public land trivia to share on your hike.