Understanding Public Land Designation

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.

national parkTypes 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 was 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.

national parkWho’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 tall­grass prairie.

Redwood National ParkPre­serve 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.