A Quick Guide to Public Land Types

National parks, one of the most popular types of public land in the US, have been called America’s best idea. This is for good reason, as in 2019 there were over 300 million visits to national parks. These areas of spectacular landscapes, history, and recreational opportunities provide a great way for all Americans to get out and appreciate what our country has to offer.

However, although they get much attention from the public, national parks are only one of many types of public land in the US. Other types include national forests, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands, national wildlife refuges, and more. While all are available to the public to visit, each has its own purpose, uses, and regulations.

Overview

The idea of these large swaths of publicly owned land started several hundred years ago. The newly created United States began claiming millions of acres of Native American land, ceded to the government by Indian Nations. In 1781, New York State handed over its land claims as far west as the Mississippi River to the federal government. Soon, other colonies did the same, leaving the federal government with all territory between the colonies and the Mississippi. By the 1860s, the government had claimed the rest of the land west to the Pacific Ocean through purchases and cessations from other countries.

Much of the original federally owned land is no longer federally owned. Over the years, the government has transferred large sections of land to states, individuals, and corporations. Lands transferred to the states were meant to be leased or sold to raise money for schools. Those given to railroad companies were intended to be an incentive for the creation of a transportation system.

What’s left today makes up our public land system. These lands are managed across four major bodies:

  • US Forest Service (USFS), under the US Department of Agriculture
  • National Park Service (NPS), under the US Department of the Interior
  • Bureau of Land Management (BLM), under the US Department of the Interior
  • US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), under the US Department of the Interior

Each body manages its lands for different purposes, and some manage many different types of public land. For example, the NPS manages much more than just national parks. They also cover national monuments, national historic areas, national battlefields, and more.

Below, I’ll cover a few of the many types of public land we enjoy in the US today.

National Parks

Mountains at Grand Teton National Park

National parks are one of the most popular types of public land enjoyed by Americans each year. These areas highlight the best of what the country has to offer in terms of breathtaking landscapes. Famous places like the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and Yosemite are national parks. In addition to many square miles of rugged, undeveloped, beautiful landscapes, national parks offer accessibility. They are meant to serve as many people as possible, giving every visitor the ability to enjoy the country’s most defining areas. Because of this, they are well developed. National parks have bustling visitors centers, rangers who educate the public, well-maintained paved road systems, and established trailheads with restrooms and maps.

Most have a fee to enter, and this fee often covers one carful of people for a designated amount of time, usually for a day or week. Because of the number of visitors and the need to stay in pristine condition, national parks tend to have stricter regulations than other types of public land. For example, hunting, off-roading, and pets are are prohibited or tightly regulated within national park boundaries. Camping often requires a permit, and in some parks is limited to designated locations.

National Forests and Grasslands

A river running through a national forest

Often overshadowed by national parks, but sometimes equally beautiful, national forests are scattered around the country, especially out west. They are much more open to various activities and are the standard type of land that many campers, bikers, hikers, fishermen, and hunters use. They’re also used for non-recreational purposes, like grazing and logging. Think of national forests as all-purpose public lands.

By all-purpose, I don’t mean there are no regulations. Each national forest has its own restrictions on things like fires and firewood collection, and rangers that patrol a given area. Camping is generally allowed nearly anywhere in a national forest, although there are some heavily used areas that have special camping regulations, and camping in the same spot may be limited to a certain number of days. National forests are free to visit and tend to have at least a couple well-maintained roads and trails, mixed with social trails and 4WD, high-clearance roads.

National grasslands are very similar to national forests, and generally just go by a different name based on their primary ecosystem. Many national grasslands are found on the Great Plains, while national forests are common in the mountains and other timbered areas.

Wildernesses

When people use the word “wilderness,” they’re often just referring to a wild, natural place. However, a Wilderness area, with a capital W, is a designated area of public land. Wildernesses usually exist within national forests or other pieces of public land, and are the most primitive, rugged, and undeveloped lands we have. Think of a Wilderness area as a section of national forest that has heightened restrictions.

While the idea of a national forest with more rules may sound off-putting, for many, the benefits of these regulations far outweigh the downsides. Wilderness areas are meant to be left as-is, with as little human influence as possible. This means no mechanized travel (including bicycles), no restrooms or other facilities, and no chainsaws or gas-powered augers. With these restrictions in place, it’s possible to feel truly immersed in nature while in Wilderness areas. They’re usually very quiet and free from large amounts of litter or pollution. While most Americans would call national parks the crown jewel of the public land system, many avid outdoors-folk give that title to the Wilderness.

National Wildlife Refuges

Managed by the USFWS, national wildlife refuges are funded by waterfowl hunters and are intended to provide habitat and safety for wildlife, particularly migratory birds. Since many of these birds are waterfowl, national wildlife refuges tend to have water, often in the form of ponds, lakes, and wetlands.

The name “refuge” can be a little misleading here, as what comes to mind may be an untouched area closed to visitors. Quite the contrary, the vast majority of these areas are open to the public for hunting, fishing, boating, and more. Some allow camping, either dispersed or in designated sites. However, unless they’re there to hunt and fish, most people would probably be happier camping on different pieces of public land, since wildlife refuges usually have lots of wet, swampy ground instead of dry, maintained campsites and trails found elsewhere. Instead, these are mostly used for day trips, and are often found close to home.

BLM Land

BLM Land

BLM land is a unique one in the bunch. Present-day BLM land was land that the federal government originally tried to give away to homesteaders. However, most of this land was fairly undesirable. Unlike the lush, heavily vegetated national forests, these lands were dry, scrubby, and mostly empty. All the land that was left unclaimed by homesteaders became BLM land, which people can still use for recreation today. They’re also managed for other uses, like resource extraction.

BLM land is almost always free to use, apart from occasional special permits needed for certain activities. They also have relatively few regulations. Apart from very reasonable laws like not leaving trash behind, most normal outdoor activities are permitted, including camping, hunting, off-roading, shooting, and more. You can usually build a campfire on BLM land unless a local fire ban prevents it.

National Conservation Areas

Red Rock Canyon National Recreation Area.

National conservation areas are also managed by the BLM, but have more restrictions than normal BLM land. Because they’re designed with conservation in mind, resource extraction and motorized travel are usually highly limited or unlawful. This doesn’t just mean the conservation of wildlife, which is often what comes to mind. The conservation of scientific, cultural, and historical features is a big aspect of national conservation areas. Think of them as the BLM version of Wilderness areas: wonderful, untouched landscapes meant to be enjoyed on foot.

National Monuments

Devil's Tower National Monument

National monuments have arguably gotten more press than any other type of public land in recent years, and mostly under unfortunate circumstances. Under the Antiquities Act, the president is able to set aside areas of natural, cultural, scientific, or historic significance for protection. Although this process may sound restrictive to those wanting to use the landscape, these areas are usually open for the public to do much of what they’d do on any other piece of public land, like backpacking. Some, like Mount Rushmore, are intended for large crowds and viewing by the public, and may have tighter restrictions.

National Recreation Areas

National recreation areas are also a stand-out from the rest of the bunch. As their name suggests, these pieces of public land revolve around a single purpose: recreational opportunities. Most are also specifically meant for water activities like boating, swimming, and fishing, as they are located around major reservoirs like Lake Mead. Since some other types of public land restrict things like motor boats, national recreational areas are perfect for “lake life” activities that can’t be done elsewhere. Some are located in relatively urban areas, too, making them very accessible to the general public. If you want some fun in the sun on a boat, this is your place. If you’re looking for a quiet walk through the woods, it’s probably best to look elsewhere.

National Trails

There are three types of national trails: scenic, historic, and recreational. Most likely, you’re familiar with at least a handful of these trails even if you don’t know they’re designated as national trails. The Appalachian Trail, for instance, is probably the most well-known trail in the country and is categorized as a scenic trail along with several others like it. Historic trails follow famous paths taken throughout history, like the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, the Pony Express National Historic Trail, and the Old Spanish National Historic Trail. Recreational Trails are, obviously, meant for recreation and also include water trails, which are rivers and river sections chosen as great places for people to recreate.

National Seashores and Lakeshores

National seashores and lakeshores are very straightforward. These are areas of beach and coastline that are left undisturbed by human presence. No bars, hotels, or rental shops can be found in these pristine areas. National seashores are found on the Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf of Mexico, and although national lakeshores can apply to any lake if given the designation, all current national lakeshores are along the Great Lakes.

Wild and Scenic Rivers

Wild and scenic rivers (podcast episode 16) represent the best-of-the-best when it comes to flowing water in the US. For a river section to be nominated for a wild and scenic designation, it must be free-flowing and unaltered by dams or other similar structures. It must also display at least one “outstandingly remarkable value,” which could be anything from impressive geologic significance, to robust fish populations, to easily accessible recreational opportunities. Once designated, the river is protected from any influence that would hinder the outstandingly remarkable value for which it was recognized.

Local Public Lands

Most of this list was focused on federal public lands, but it’s important to remember that there are smaller categories of public land that are likely right outside your door. State, county, and city parks dot the country and are numerous and easily accessible. While some state parks do charge a fee, most city and county parks are free and offer plenty of opportunities for walking, biking, picnicking, birdwatching, and more. It’s also fairly common to find ponds in your local parks, opening up the options for fishing. While you probably won’t find anything as grand as the Tetons in your city park, these small pockets of nature are great for their intended purpose, which is to provide everyone the opportunity to get outside every day and enjoy some fresh air.

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