From sea to shining sea, the United States boasts some of the world’s most diverse and beautiful wild places. More than 640-million acres of these belong to and are beloved by the American people. This is where you love to hike, climb, kayak, and camp. But how much do you know about it? What’s the difference between a national park and a national forest? And who’s in charge of all that land? Here’s a quick guide.
Types of Public Land
Lucky for outdoor junkies, we’ve got tons of choices when heading out for a weekend of wilderness bliss. While there is a huge range of highly specific public land designations, from wildlife refuges to national trails, let’s focus on three major types: National parks, national monuments, and national forests.
The most iconic public lands are our national parks. Starting with Yellowstone in 1872, some of the world’s most stunning wilds are preserved within the system’s 58 parks. These are currently some of the best-protected lands we’ve got. It takes an act of Congress to create one.
Many of the parks were national monuments first. Under the Antiquities Act, a president can set aside public lands without a congressional act. National monuments are deemed to be historically valuable. The most recent were created in December.
National forests are a slightly different game. While huge swaths of forest are indeed protected for public recreation or preservation, our forests are also considered sites for logging, mineral extraction, and other nitty-gritty activities that don’t align with peaceful visions of pristine nature.
Who’s in Charge?
Broadly, the Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture are responsible for federally owned lands.
Within The Department of the Interior, three separate bureaus oversee different types of federal land: The Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The Bureau of Land Management operates in the western states. Most of the land the BLM administers—about an eighth of the total landmass in the country—is contained within the western states. And a lot of it is the stuff that homesteaders couldn’t eke a living from. BLM land has different functions. From protected national monuments to grazing land and mining operations, the bureau has a massive task on its hands.
The National Park Service administers, of course, our National Park system, plus a host of other land units, including national monuments. Its hundreds of sites include national parks, national monuments, historic sites, trails, and wilderness zones.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the only agency with a primary mission of protecting plants and wildlife. The folks at Fish and Wildlife enforce the Endangered Species Act and promote conservation. More than 93-million acres of National Wildlife Refuge sites fall under its jurisdiction.
The Department of Agriculture contains the U.S. Forest Service. The Forest Service manages 193-million acres of national forests, grasslands, and tall grass prairie.
Preserve or Conserve?
Back in 1905, the first Forest Service Chief, Gifford Pinchot, advocated conservation of resources over preservation of wilderness. What’s that mean? For Pinchot, wise use was the key to a healthy, productive environment, but the resources contained therein weren’t off-limits from human use. One of Pinchot’s most famous opponents was John Muir, who argued for preservation, limiting invasive human activity, especially huge-scale projects like dams that change the whole character of the land.
The argument between wise use and leaving nature alone to do its thing without any human intervention remains a big struggle.
Even those areas we view as sacred to our national wilds have historically been managed in some questionable ways. Whether by human-created spectacles like the old firefall at Yosemite or by interventions at Yellowstone to promote up-close and unnatural wildlife encounters for human entertainment, we are a species that likes to meddle.
Thankfully, modern environmentalism has given us a broader view. We’re starting to figure out that less manipulation is better. And that even the process of taking resources from the land should be as non-invasive as possible, keeping our land great for generations to come.