What’s Up with the Public Lands in the United States?

The fourth Saturday in September marks National Public Lands Day here in the United States. But what makes land public? Who takes care of public lands? What kind of recreation is allowed? It turns out, the answers aren’t as straightforward as you might think. Here in the United States, we have several different types of public lands that are maintained by various governing bodies. Here’s your guide to America’s Public Lands.

A Note About the History of the Public Lands of the United States

Before we dive into the nuances of public lands in the United States, it’s important to remember that when our government created public lands, they also forcibly removed native peoples. Conflicts were often bloody affairs. This left communities of people stranded or forced into a completely new environment, with their sacred homelands left behind.

We often hear that “public lands are for everyone.” But it would be naïve to not remember and acknowledge that the government didn’t always make wise decisions. When public lands were created it certainly did not include “everyone” as we know it today. The next time you visit public lands, pay homage to this fact. Learn about native history in the area and be aware of who’s homeland you are exploring.

National Parks of the United States

For a lot of people, our public lands start with national parks. Many people consider national parks icons of natural beauty. Congress creates national parks through a formal designation. There are 58 national parks in the United States, with Yellowstone being the oldest.

The National Park Service, a division of the Department of the Interior, manages national parks. Typically, these parks offer a wide-range of human-powered activities. Most parks require permits for backpacking and some of the more crowded parks require hiking permits. Dogs typically aren’t permitted in national parks, aside from paved roadways. National parks typically also receive the most visitors, meaning planning your trip in advance is a must.

public lands explained

US National Forests

The U.S. Forest Service, a division of the Department of Agriculture manages our National Forests. Unlike national parks (with a few exceptions) the 154 national forests in the United States allow for multiple uses including mining, grazing, and recreation. Our national forests tend to be located near national parks, helping to create a protective buffer zone for the parks.

Since national forests offer a variety of activity, you can usually find free, dispersed camping in designated areas as well as paid campsites with amenities. Also, there is a wider variety of recreation opportunities, including the use of ATVs and motor-powered trails in certain areas.

BLM Land

Okay, now things are about to get muddy. BLM or the Bureau of Land Management manages approximately 12 percent of America’s landmass. To put that in perspective, that’s a little bit less than the size of Texas. BLM land is primarily in the west, most notably Utah, Wyoming, Alaska, Colorado, and Nevada. BLM land can be Wilderness Areas, National Trail Systems, National Conservation Areas and more.

Activities on BLM land varies greatly from mining and coal leases to timberlands, grazing, and recreation. Many outdoor enthusiasts love BLM land for its excellent dispersed camping. Before heading into BLM territory, check with the local agency for a camping map.

National Monuments

National Monuments offer a variety of landscapes, including historical and cultural sites. Examples range from the expansive Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah to Chicago’s Pullman National Monument. Over 120 national l monuments have been created since their inception in 1906. Some of them, like the Grand Canyon, turning into national parks. Seven different agency manage national monuments. This is done either in joint or individually.

Recreation on these spaces vary. Some have a cultural and historical education element, while others offer hiking, biking, ATV riding and more. Since these areas are all regulated by different agencies with varying regulations, it’s best to check with the regulations of the monument before indulging in any activities.

national conservation area explained

National Conservation Areas

The Bureau of Land Management manages National Conservation Areas. These areas are not open to mining, grazing and other activities that disturb the landscape. Typically, they feature scientific, cultural, historical and recreational features. These areas include some national monuments, wilderness study areas, wilderness areas, wild and scenic rivers as well as national trail systems.

Wilderness Areas

Wilderness Areas encompass swaths of undeveloped land. Designated by Congress, these areas include parts of national parks, national forests, BLM land or national wildlife refuges.

Since there has been no development, typically these areas are a bit more difficult to access and rougher in nature. Due to the lack of development, take extra care when visiting these environments.

Public lands wilderness areas

National Wildlife Refuges

Wildlife Refuges aim to connect urban dwellers to the outdoors. These areas provide wildlife populations with space to exist in their natural habitat. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages wildlife refuges. They ensure that the fauna and flora are healthy and happy.

Recreation in National Wildlife Refuges varies from canoeing to hiking to hunting and more. Many of these areas are located within an hour of major cities and with over 560 sites, National Wildlife Refuges are located in every state and U.S Territory.

Leave No Trace and Public Lands

It doesn’t matter if you’re packing out your poop in a national park or parking at a scenic overlook at a national monument, always treat the wilderness with respect and care. This means packing out all of your trash (this includes things like apple cores, which aren’t naturally found in the wilderness), staying on designated trails, camping in appropriate areas and respecting the wildlife. For more information on Leave No Trace, check out their website.

Public lands certainly come in all shapes and sizes. Each designation has its own set of regulations, rules and governing bodies. Whatever you are into outside, there is a swath of public land that’s perfect for you.



About the Author


Meg Atteberry

Meg ditched the 9-5 world as an architect in pursuit of adventure. Now a freelance writer for the outdoor industry, she’s made it her life’s work to inspire others to say “yes” to adventure. From the remote wilderness areas of Colorado, to exploring a foreign country, Meg specializes in off-beat destinations for the intrepid soul. You can find her in the backcountry searching for the perfect camp spot in her home of Colorado.