What Exactly Are Our Public Lands, Anyway?

We swoon over our public lands constantly - swapping wilderness stories, asking for tips on a future trip, and how we can best protect them. But what exactly are our public lands? We’ve made a handy overview below for you to refresh your memory!

Simply put, public lands are owned and open to the public and managed by the government. It's land you own — along with everyone else in the United States. There are three main types of public lands: federal, state, and local, and they include everything from national parks to your local city park. For the purposes of this article, we're going to talk about one type of public land: federal public lands.

Federal public lands are lands are owned by all Americans and managed for us by the federal government. They make up 28% of the U.S.’ land area, and most of it is in the West.
There are four agencies that manage the bulk of them: the National Park Service, the Fish & Wildlife Service, the Forest Service, and the Bureau of Land Management. Each agency manages the land in different ways - which means each area has different protections and rules for how we can visit them.
Below are the four main government agencies that manage our public lands:

National Park Service (NPS)

The NPS manages 84 million acres made up of 417 national parks and monuments. These lands are preserved for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations. In general, the NPS has strict protections for the land, and its focus is on protecting and conserving the area so that future generations can see it in its natural state.

Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS)

The Fish & Wildlife Service manages 90 million acres, most of it made up in small plots of land. Their land is to conserve fish, wildlife, and plants. As such - the main focus of the USFWS is on proper conservation and enforcement for life on these lands. To generalize - there’s more of a focus on proper management of wildlife resources (think hunting and fishing) than recreation (think camping and hiking) compared to the NPS. The USFWS is a crucial link in keeping our ecosystems healthy around the nation.

Forest Service (FS)

The Forest Service manages 190 million acres, most of it in national forests. Their mission is to sustain our nation’s forests and grasslands. They balance several different needs - like recreation, ecosystem protection, and resource extraction (think timber). The FS has plenty of great hiking and camping opportunities, and they work with the timber industry to manage our forests in a sustainable way. Fun fact: you can camp nearly anywhere in national forests! Check out dispersed camping on the FS website - and be sure to always check local rules and follow Leave No Trace principles

Bureau of Land Management (BLM)

Last but not least, the Bureau of Land Management manages 247 million acres. BLM land is usually the most controversial public land that you read about and see in the headlines - and much of that is because they balance many, many different uses for their land. That includes everything from recreation to grazing, timber, watershed, wildlife and fish, resource extraction, conservation, and everything in-between. In areas that are ok for recreation, there are phenomenal opportunities for hiking and camping. Yes, you can also dispersed camp here, too  - unless there are posted signs saying otherwise. Again, you’ll want to check out your local rules and follow LNT.  

That’s a wrap! The four different agencies that manage our public lands have different goals and uses for the land - and that impacts how many protections the land has and how we’re able to interact with it.
And before you go - always remember that our public lands belong to all of us. They’re managed by these agencies for us - not from us. Join us in celebrating and protecting them.

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