If I asked you what our public lands are, what images come to mind? The mountains of Yosemite National Park? The Grand Canyon? Or maybe some of the wild national park in Alaska?
The truth is there are so many more types of public land than just national parks, it can be hard to keep them all straight. National parks, monuments, scenic & wild rivers, wildernesses — these are all different types of public land, and each one is a little bit different.
We’re going to break down 10 types of public land - the wild places we all own that are managed by the federal government - so you can keep ‘em straight and know how they’re different from one another.
Heads up: public land designations can get pretty confusing, and there’s a lot of overlap between them. Reading our previous blog post What Exactly Are Our Public Lands, Anyway? will help you get to know the four federal agencies that manage our public lands: the National Park Service (NPS), the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS), and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS).
Most people are familiar with national parks, so they're a great spot to start on our public land journey. The national parks are large landscapes managed by the National Park Service and tend to be very protected. They exist to simultaneously allow this generation to interact with the natural landscape while preserving the land for future generations to enjoy, too. That means parks tend to only allow hiking and camping, and things like fossil fuel extraction, hunting, and fishing are off-limits in national parks.
For a national park to be created, it has to be designated by both Congress and the President - which can take a lot of time. Today, there are 62 national parks in the US, ranging from the Grand Canyon to Acadia. We won’t go into the details now, but there are actually 28 different kinds of public lands that the National Park Service manages - from national parks to national historical parks to national memorials to national recreation areas. National parks are just one type of national park system units that the National Park Service oversees. Confusing, right?
National Monuments are very similar to national parks. They usually protect a specific thing - whether it’s a natural area or a cultural or historical feature. Quite a few national parks actually started out as national monuments first, since creating a national monument only requires Presidential approval (and Congress doesn’t need to get involved). National monuments are managed by the National Park Service, one of the big four federal agencies that protect public lands.
National monuments have been in the news a lot lately after Pres. Trump controversially shrunk Grand Staircase—Escalante National Monument by 50% and Bears Ears National Monument by 85%. Presidents alone can designate national monuments thanks to the 1906 Antiquities Act, but never before has a president used this authority to shrink (or nearly eliminate) them. It’s unclear whether a president actually can do this — and right now the courts are still deciding if this is allowed.
National Wildlife Refuges
National Wildlife Refuges (NWRs) are managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to conserve fish, wildlife, and plants. Wildlife refuges conserve tons of habitat types, from prairies, mountains, wetlands, and coastal and marine areas. There’s one in each U.S. state and territory, and they’re ripe for outdoor recreation: hiking, hunting, fishing, paddling, and wildlife watching. In general, oil and gas development isn’t allowed in wildlife refuges, but there are a few exceptions of grandfathered fossil fuel rigs in them.
Wildlife refuges are a bit underrated since most people search for national and state parks when they want to visit the wild. That means they’re great for finding some solitude if you’re looking for some peace and quiet. But remember — conservation of the refuge’s habitats are prioritized over outdoor recreation, so do a bit of research before your trip to know what you can and can’t do during your visit. Find one near you by visiting the USFWS’ Find Your Refuge tool.
National Conservation Areas
National Conservation Areas (NCAs) are very similar to wildlife refuges.They’re designated by Congress to conserve scientific, cultural, historical, or recreational features. But unlike wildlife refuges, National Conservation Areas are managed by the Bureau of Land Management, not the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
There are 17 National Conservation Areas in the US, and in general they are not used for mining or fossil fuel development, and even vehicle use is restricted. This makes National Conservation Areas much more protected than most BLM lands - which are often used for fossil fuel extraction, mining, grazing, or timber extraction.
Here’s where it can get a bit confusing: National Conservation Areas are a small part of the BLM’s larger National Landscape Conservation System, which is a more broad system of 873 conservation areas mainly located in the western US. This is similar to how national parks are just a small part of the NPS’ larger National Park System.
There are currently 154 national forests in the U.S. managed by the U.S. Forest Service. They’re great for camping and hiking, and you can even disperse camp for free in many parts of national forests. Similar to BLM land, though, they’re not just for outdoor recreation. The USFS also leases out portions of national forests for timber extraction, grazing, and mining.
Many national forests can be found near national parks - and they’re much, much less crowded than the parks, too. Sometimes the forests are used as a “buffer” around national parks to protect the parks from nearby human activity. In general, if you can't find a campsite at a national park, you might be able to snag one at a nearby national forest.
National Recreation Areas
National Recreation Areas (NRAs) are public lands near large reservoirs that are protected for water-based outdoor recreation. There’s 12 of them in the US, and they’re managed by either the National Park Service, the BLM, or the Forest Service. These are great for paddlers and boaters alike — and you can fish, swim, and SUP to get your dose of water time in the wild.
You’re probably familiar with the Pacific Crest Trail or the Appalachian Trail. Both of ‘em are in the National Trails System. These trails were created to promote and preserve public access to open-air outdoor areas across the nation. Congress can designate a national trail into one of three categories: recreational, historical, or scenic.
National Trails aren’t just for hiking - they’re also for horseback riding, camping, mountain biking, and even scenic driving. They’re managed by either the BLM, the USFS, or the NPS. They were created back in 1968, and today there are 30 of them protecting more than 50,000 miles of trail.
National Seashores and Lakeshores
National Seashores and Lakeshores protect shoreline habitats and promote outdoor recreation along America’s three coasts and the Great Lakes (though other freshwater lakes could be protected in the future). They’re very important for habitat protection since shorelines are particularly fragile to changes in the environment. National Seashores and Lakeshores help protect wetlands, marshes, dunes, forests, lakes, lagoons, and even historic lighthouses and estates along shorelines.
Wild and Scenic Rivers
Wild and Scenic Rivers (WSRs) are public lands that preserve rivers and their surrounding land in their natural state - both for preservation and to promote outdoor recreation. In total, there are more than 200 rivers in the system spread across 40 states and Puerto Rico. They are phenomenal for paddlers, boaters, and fishers.
Wild and Scenic Rivers are managed by the NPS and were created back in 1968 thanks to the National Wild and Scenic River Act. There are three different classifications: wild rivers (free of dams and development, quite inaccessible by trail), scenic rivers (free of dams with largely inaccessible by trail, little development on shoreline), and recreational rivers (readily accessible by road and may have some development along the shoreline or have been dammed in past).
Wilderness areas are public lands that have not been developed by humans that have special ecologic, geologic, or scenic values. It’s the highest protection status available for our public lands, and there are more than 680 wilderness areas across the nation. Generally, wilderness areas are undeveloped areas that have been left in their natural state, and we manage them to keep them that way. They often lack roads, buildings, and other artificial structures.
Wilderness areas are created by Congress and can be managed by the NPS, USFS, BLM, and the USFWS. They're great for recreation - but only non-mechanized recreation. Nearly 5% of US land is designated wilderness, and half of that is found up in Alaska.