A Brief Intro to Public Lands

It’s impossible to talk about the public lands all Americans enjoy access to without acknowledging their deep-rooted Indigenous heritage. Our national parks, forests, and other federally managed spaces (not to mention other public lands) define acreage obtained—often forcibly—from Native American peoples. These landscapes and landmarks come woven with stories and traditions from their original inhabitants, and that significance—and the troubling legacy of how the U.S. government came to control these millions of acres—is definitely worthy of consideration as you enjoy the scenery.

When visiting and recreating on these native lands, it’s always a good idea to do some prior research about the local native history of the areas(Opens in a new window). Here in Osprey’s corner of the world, the history and traditions of the Utes, Southern Paiute, Shoshone, and various other Colorado River tribes are still very much alive in Southwest Colorado.

A landscape view of Monument Valley from a distance Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park is managed by the Navajo Parks and Recreation Department. Image via Cayetano Gil

More than 600 million acres of the United States fall under the ownership of the federal government, including some of the country’s most popular and iconic destinations for outdoor recreation and adventure.

Many of us visit national parks, forests, recreation areas, wildlife refuges, and other public lands. That’s essential background for anyone interested in the how and why of public-land management—and the preservation not only of the spaces themselves and their resources but also access to them.

A view of a mountain range with a windy road in the foreground, and trees on either side. Photo by Josh Carter

In this article, we’ll run through a basic primer on the main federal lands open to outdoor recreation—old hat, likely, for many hikers and backpackers, but hopefully useful for those less familiar with this vast domain held in trust for each and every American.

The Federal Land-Management Agencies

The four federal agencies tasked with overseeing the majority of public lands in the U.S. are the National Park Service(Opens in a new window) (NPS), U.S. Forest Service(Opens in a new window) (USFS), Bureau of Land Management(Opens in a new window) (BLM), and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service(Opens in a new window) (USFWS), though there are several others (including the Department of Defense, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) with smaller holdings. The Park Service, BLM, and USFWS are housed within the Department of the Interior, while the Forest Service is part of the Department of Agriculture.

These four agencies have different mandates and missions, which not only affects how these lands are managed but also the sort of visitor activities that are allowed. And given how intertwined agency acreage often is—national parks partly surrounded by national forests, Bureau of Land Management parcels patchworked against national forestland—the overlapping but sometimes competing mandates can make for super-complicated coordination on landscape-scale issues.

A close look at several large trees in Sequoia National Park(Opens in a new window) The towering beauties of Sequoia National Park. Photo by Josh Carter

National Park Service

Mandated “to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the Nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations,” the United States Forest Service functions on the edict of multiple-use, attempting to balance resource extraction, livestock grazing, and outdoor recreation with the preservation of roadless areas, old-growth stands, wildlife habitat, and other ecological values. This makes National Forestland ground zero for some of the most vigorous debates surrounding federal land-management in the country.

President Woodrow Wilson signed the act establishing the NPS in 1916, but the U.S. government had by then already declared a number of national parks—including the first in the world, Yellowstone, created back in 1872. Today, the National Park System accounts for more than 400 entities and 85-plus million acres in every state in the country plus Washington D.C. (the White House included), Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Among these are 63 national parks and 19 national preserves as well as 72 national historic sites, 10 national seashores, three national lakeshores, and many other types of holdings. The largest NPS area is the 13.2-million-acre Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve in southern Alaska; the biggest national park in the Lower 48 is the 3.4-million-acre Death Valley National Park in California.

The NPS manages these lands both to protect their natural, cultural, and historic resources as well as to facilitate interpretation and visitor enjoyment in perpetuity.

A person in a red canoe on a river, surrounded by large cliffs on both sides.(Opens in a new window) Paddling in Big Bend National Park. Photo by Mick Haupt

U.S. Forest Service

Nearly 200 million acres of federal land in the U.S. fall under the auspices of the Forest Service, whose origins date back to the 1870s under various names such as the Division of Forestry and Bureau of Forestry. In 1905, it officially became the US Forest Service, first helmed by the influential forester Gifford Pinchot. The USFS oversees 155 national forests in 44 states, accounting for some awesome landscape diversity: from the temperate rainforest of southeastern Alaska’s Tongass National Forest—at more than seven million acres, the biggest in the system—to the coastal dunes of Oregon’s Siuslaw, the boreal wilderness of Minnesota’s Superior, the pinelands of Florida’s Ocala, and the tropical rainforest of Puerto Rico’s El Yunque.

Beyond those national forests, the USFS is also responsible for 20 national grasslands accounting for 3.8 million acres—mainly on the Great Plains, but also in the Intermountain West—as well as the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in Illinois.

Bureau of Land Management

The BLM is the other major multiple-use agency at the federal level alongside the USFS. The BLM arose in 1946 with the merging of the General Land Office, founded in 1812 to stimulate homesteading, and the U.S. Grazing Service. While it has a presence in every state, by far the majority of its 265 million acres—more than any other federal land-management agency—lie out West, much of it in open, semi-arid or arid country. Mining and grazing are major factors on BLM land, which also welcomes recreational pursuits that range from primitive car-camping, backpacking, and boating to hunting, fishing, and off-roading (oh, and attending the Burning Man festival, too).

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

The USFWS has a narrower focus than the other agencies, established to conserve and manage the nation’s critters and their habitat. It grew out of the U.S. Commission of Fish & Fisheries, which Congress formed in 1871 to investigate and address the decline of the food fishes. The USFWS oversees the better part of 600 National Wildlife Refuges among other lands, and, as part of its work, runs research and recovery programs connected to the country’s endangered species.

Outdoor recreation is not a top priority for the USFWS, and indeed a number of National Wildlife Refuges aren’t open to the public. But many are, to some degree, with, generally speaking, an emphasis on wildlife-watching and ecosystem education as well as hunting and sportfishing.

Two brown horses along with a white and brown horse run on a sandy beach with greenery in the background.(Opens in a new window) Wild ponies running free within Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Sara Cottle

Examples of Cross-Agency Public Land Designations

Quite a few different public-land designations may be managed by one or another federal agency, or co-managed by multiple agencies. The following are some of the more notable examples.

Two people walking across sand dunes.(Opens in a new window) The otherworldly landscape of New Mexico’s White Sands National Monument. Photo by Caleb Wright

National Monuments

A vast array of natural, historic, and cultural treasures in the U.S. fall under the designation of national monument, which may be established by Congress or (under the Antiquities Act) by presidential authority alone. Most of the 129 national monuments in the country fall under NPS or BLM management, but the USFS and USFWS also manage some, and a handful of other agencies oversee a few. (The four huge marine national monuments in the U.S. are co-managed by the USFWS and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.)

National monuments range from the Bay Area redwood groves of Muir Woods (NPS), the red rock wonders of Bears Ears National Monument (BLM), and the Inside Passage wilderness of Misty Fjords National Monument (USFS) to the blast-zone realm of Mount St. Helens (USFS), the Amerindian earthworks of Effigy Mounds in Iowa (NPS), and such historic sites as Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad NM in Maryland (USFWS) and César E. Chávez in California (NPS).

National Recreation Areas

Several dozen national recreation areas (NRAs), many ensconced within larger federal-land holdings, put the emphasis on visitor activities, from boating and angling to backpacking and horseback treks. The first established was Lake Mead NRA in 1936. Most are managed by the USFS or NPS, though the BLM is responsible for a biggie: the million-acre White Mountains NRA in the Alaskan interior. Other examples include Allegheny NRA in Pennsylvania (USFS) and Stafford White Rocks NRA in Vermont (USFS) to Hells Canyon NRA in Oregon and Idaho (USFS), Ross Lake NRA in Washington (NPS), and Glen Canyon in Utah and Arizona (NPS).

Federal Wilderness Areas

Land protected by the government specifically for its wilderness values—generally speaking, undeveloped and “unimproved” acreage—is another concept that, in large part, was pioneered in the U.S. The 1964 Wilderness Act formalized the establishment and management of federal wilderness areas in the country. The National Park Service and Forest Service had begun identifying “primitive areas” decades earlier, however, and in 1924—partly due to the efforts of now-legendary conservationist Aldo Leopold—the Forest Service declared more than 500,000 acres of New Mexico’s Gila National Forest as the Gila Wilderness Reserve, widely regarded as the first officially designated wilderness area in the world. (It remains the Land of Enchantment’s biggest wilderness area.)

Today, more than 100 million acres fall within the U.S. National Wilderness Preservation System. Generally speaking, motorized vehicles and equipment, bicycles, and hang-gliders are prohibited in federal wilderness, otherwise usually fully open to foot, horseback, and paddle-craft travel. Hunting and fishing are allowed in many wilderness areas, though the former is prohibited in most National Park (though not necessarily National Preserve) wildernesses.

Congressional action can establish a federal wilderness area on NPS, USFS, BLM, or USFWS acreage, meaning any of those four agencies may be responsible for wilderness management. In terms of the agency breakdown(Opens in a new window), the NPS oversees 40% of federal wilderness in 61 wilderness areas; the USFS 33% in 448 areas; the USFWS 19% in 71 areas; and the BLM 9% in 260 areas.

It’s worth noting that, while 50 units of the Park Service contain officially designated wilderness areas, a heck of a lot more land overseen by that agency is managed as de facto wilderness. This means that the NPS manages more than 80% of its acreage as wilderness. A case in point is the oldest national park of all: There are no official federal wilderness areas in Yellowstone, though 90% of the park(Opens in a new window) is Recommended Wilderness and “managed to maintain [its] natural wilderness character so as not to preclude wilderness designation in the future.”

A landscape view of a body of water hidden between a mountain range in the background and a line of trees in the foreground.(Opens in a new window) Montana’s Bitterroot Wilderness. Photo by Emma Smith

National Trails

Established by Congress in 1968 “to promote the preservation of, public access to, travel within, and enjoyment and appreciation of the open-air, outdoor areas and historic resources of the Nation,” the National Trails System accounts for tens of thousands of miles in every U.S. state. The best-known components are probably the 11 National Scenic Trails, which include such world-famous long-distance footpaths as the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail and come overseen by the NPS or the USFS with much support from various partner organizations. Then there are 19 National Historic Trails (including Lewis & Clark, Ala Kalakai, and Trail of Tears), plus more than a thousand National Recreation Trails—even a National Geologic Trail, Ice Age Floods, encompassing the Northwestern landscapes sculpted by the numerous prehistoric megafloods unleashed by Glacial Lake Missoula.

A person wearing a blue Osprey pack facing out and taking in the view of a grassy and forested area.(Opens in a new window) Embarking on a multi-month thru-hike of a National Scenic Trail is one for the life-list. Photo by Tristan Pineda

Written by Ethan Shaw for Matcha in partnership with Osprey Packs.

Featured image provided by Cayetano Gil(Opens in a new window)