Tag Archives: state parks

Your Guide to Public Land

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Brown and white wooden national forest sign reads, El Rito Ranger Station Carson National Forest U.S. Department of Agriculture

What’s the difference between a national park and a national forest? What’s a national monument anyway? What can I do on BLM land? What’s the Corps of Engineers and where is their property? Can I camp in a national wildlife refuge? Are state parks federal land?

People are confused about public land, and who can blame them? There are so many state and federal agencies managing public land that it’s difficult to keep them sorted out. Today I will do my best to clear up confusion by giving you information about the different categories of public land.

National parks are run by the National Parks Service, a bureau of the U.S. Department of the Interior. According to the National Parks Service FAQs,

The [national parks] system includes 419 areas covering more than 85 million acres in every state, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. These areas include national parks, monuments, battlefields, military parks, historical parks, historic sites, lakeshores, seashores, recreation areas, scenic rivers and trails, and the White House.

Some national parks charge entrance fees, but fewer than one-third do. Click here to find a national park to visit.

According to the website of the Great Smokey Mountains National Park,

National parks emphasize strict preservation of pristine areas. They focus on protecting natural and historic resources “unimpaired for future generations.”

National forests are another designation of public land. According to the U.S. Forest Service webpage called “Managing the Land“,

The Forest Service manages the National Forests and Grasslands for sustainable multiple-uses to meet the diverse needs of people, ensure the health of our natural resources, provide recreational opportunities, manage wildfire, [and] guard against invasive threats…

The aforementioned website of the Great Smokey Mountains National Park sums it up this way:

National forests…emphasize not only resource preservation, but other kinds of use as well. Under this concept of “multiple use,” national forests are managed to provide Americans with a wide variety of services and commodities, including lumber, cattle grazing, mineral products and recreation…The national forests are managed by forest rangers with the US Forest Service (USFS) under the Department of Agriculture.

The website explains,

Brown metal sign. At top there is a yellow strip that read, Caution Active Bear Area with an drawing of a bear. Below, white letters read, Move all food, coolers, toiletries and trash from your vehicle to food storage lockers day and night.
Bears are not hunted in the Sequoia National Park (where I saw this sign), but they are hunted in the Sequoia National Forest.

Because they have different purposes, adjoining national parks and national forests may need to have very different rules. For example, national parks usually forbid hunting, while forests usually allow it. Dogs can be taken on national forest trails, but not those in national parks…

To summarize:

  • National parks emphasize preservation, while national forests allow for many uses of the land and its resources.
  • National parks fall under the authority of the Department of the Interior, while national forests fall under the authority of Department of Agriculture.
  • National parks and national forests have different rules.

Ok, so what about national monuments? Where do they fall in the scheme of public land? How do they differ from national parks and forests?

According to the March 2019 article “The Difference Between National Parks and Monuments” by Ashley M. Biggers,

[t]he primary difference lies in the reason for preserving the land: National parks are protected due to their scenic, inspirational, education, and recreational value. National monuments have objects of historical, cultural, and/or scientific interest…

Another big difference, according to the Biggers article, is that

Congress designates national parks; in general, presidential proclamations establish national monuments.

Brown wooden Forest Service sign reads, Giant Sequoia National Monument Sequoia National Forest U.S. Department of Agriculure
This sign explains that the Giant Sequoia National Monument is within the Sequoia National Forest.

In some cases, a national forest and a national monument overlap. For example, I worked in the Giant Sequoia National Monument, which was within the Sequoia National Forest.

Let’s move on to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), another agency within the Department of the Interior. According to the BLM’s National History timeline,

the BLM administers the lands that remain from America’s original “public domain.” Created in 1946 through a government reorganization…the BLM is the successor to the General Land Office (established in 1812) and the U.S. Grazing Service (originally called the Division of Grazing and renamed in 1939).

The BLM’s “About” page says,

The BLM manages for multiple use across regions and landscapes, with partners and using sound science.

The same page says the BLM’s mission is

Informational pole sign that reads, Camping Limit 14 Days
I camped on this BLM land in southern Arizona.

To sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations.

I’d heard from several different people that the BLM manages lands “out West,” but while researching this post, I discovered this assertion is misleading. The agency is not limited to managing lands only in the West. The BLM’s “What We Manage” page states

[t]he BLM manages one in every 10 acres of land in the United States, and approximately 30 percent of the Nation’s minerals. These lands and minerals are found in every state in the country and encompass forests, mountains, rangelands, arctic tundra, and deserts.

The Army Corps of Engineers is another entity that manages public land. The Corps Lakes Gateway website explains,

The Army Corps of Engineers is the steward of the lands and waters at Corps water resources projects. It’s [sic] Natural Resources Management mission is to manage and conserve those natural resources, consistent with the ecosystem management principles, while providing quality public outdoor recreation experiences to serve the needs of present and future generations.

The National Wildlife Refuge System is managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. According to the agency’s website,

The mission of the National Wildlife Refuge System is to administer a national network of lands and waters for the conservation, management and, where appropriate, restoration of the fish, wildlife and plant resources and their habitats within the United States for the benefit of present and future generations of Americans.

The National Wildlife Refuge System lands and waters serve a purpose distinct from that of other U.S. public lands: Wildlife conservation drives everything on national wildlife refuges, from the purposes for which each refuge was established, to the recreational activities offered, to the resource management tools used.

Small orange and grey dome tent

Again, I was misinformed. I thought there was no camping available at national wildlife refuges, but a 2017 bulletin on the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service website says

National wildlife refuges from Alaska to Florida offer camping opportunities that allow visitors to see wildlife up close in a variety of natural habitats.

The aforementioned bulletin also lists a variety of camping options in national wildlife refuges.

The Bureau of Reclamation also manages public land open to recreation. According to the Bureau’s website, these Bureau of Reclamation projects

are located in the 17 Western United States of North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Utah, Arizona, California, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington.

The Bureau’s Recreation page says,

Reclamation projects include approximately 6.5 million acres of land and water that is, for the most part, available for public outdoor recreation…To use and enjoy recreation areas and facilities that are open to the public, no use permits are required.

According to the May 2019 article “Your Guide to America’s Public Lands” by Wes Siler, national recreation areas are

[t]ypically located near major urban areas, and are designed to provide outdoor recreation opportunities for large numbers of people.

The Empowering Parks website says,

National Recreation Areas are managed by different federal agencies, including the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the U.S. Forest Service.

The Empowering Parks website offers

an alphabetical listing of all our natural national recreation areas, with links to the official site of each national recreation area.

If you prefer the beach to the forest or the desert, visit national seashores and lakeshores. According to the National Park Service,

national lakeshores and national seashores focus on the preservation of natural values while at the same time providing water-oriented recreation. Although national lakeshores can be established on any natural freshwater lake, the existing four are all located on the Great Lakes. The national seashores are on the Atlantic, Gulf, and Pacific coasts.

Wilderness areas were established as places meant to stay quite untouched by humans. According to Wilderness Connect,

[w]ilderness areas are the most protected public lands in America. Managed with restraint, they are intended to be self-willed lands, both philosophically and practically…Found in most states, but concentrated in the west, they protect lush forests, arid deserts, snow-capped peaks, dank swamps and sandy beaches.

Forest Service logo

The U.S. Forest Service says,

The National Wilderness Preservation System is a network of over 109 million acres – more area than the state of California – of public land comprised of more than 760 wilderness areas administered for the American people by the federal government. These are special places where nature still calls the shots…They are final holdout refuges for a long list of rare, threatened, and endangered species, forced to the edges by modern development. They are the headwaters of critical, life-infusing rivers and streams. They are places where law mandates above all else that wildness be retained for our current generation, and those who will follow.    

The last public lands I’ll cover today are state parks. According to Wikipedia,

State parks are parks or other protected areas managed at the sub-national level within those nations which use “state” as a political subdivision. State parks are typically established by a state to preserve a location on account of its natural beauty, historic interest, or recreational potential. There are state parks under the administration of the government of each U.S. state…

New Mexico State Parks logo

State parks are thus similar to national parks, but under state rather than federal administration. Similarly, local government entities below state level may maintain parks, e.g., regional parks or county parks. In general, state parks are smaller than national parks…

If you’re still feeling a little confused or want information on public land I didn’t include here, see the Outside article “Your Guide to America’s Public Lands” and the National Parks Service article “What’s In a Name? Discover National Park System Designations,” both mentioned above and both excellent resources.

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I took the photos in this post.

New Mexico State Parks Annual Camping Pass

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The New Mexico State Parks Annual Camping Pass, is a great deal for anyone who wants to spend more than month exploring the state and staying in the campgrounds of its state parks. The Man and I both bought New Mexico State Parks annual camping passes in the fall of 2017 and camped at several of the state parks campgrounds separately and together.

I’ll tell you everything I know about the New Mexico State Parks Annual Camping Pass (abbreviated to NMSPACP in the rest of this article) so you can decide if it’s right for you.

As of late November 2018 when I’m writing this article, the fees, permits, and rentals page  of the New Mexico State Parks website gives the following price breakdown for the pass:

Sunset in the day use area at Brantley Lake State Park.

New Mexico Resident (Proof of New Mexico I.D. and Vehicle License Plate Number are required at time of purchase.) $180

New Mexico Resident *Senior, 62+ (Proof of Age and Vehicle License Plate Number are required at time of purchase.) $100

New Mexico Resident *Disabled (Proof of disability required.) $100

Out-of-State Resident (Proof of I.D. and Vehicle License Plate Number are required at time of purchase.) $225

If you lose your annual camping permit, no problem! You can get a replacement for only $10.

If you are a resident of New Mexico with a disability, there are several things you can use to prove  your disability to the satisfaction of the folks at the New Mexico State Parks. See the aforementioned fees, permits, and rentals page to find out what documents you need to get your reduced-rate permit.

Primitive camping at Brantley Lake State Park

Permits for seniors and folks with disabilities can only be purchased at the New Mexico State Parks’ Santa Fe Office, located at 1220 S St Francis Drive #215 or at any  New Mexico State Park Visitor Center. The passes for New Mexico residents and out-of-state residents can also be purchased online. I purchased my pass in person at the visitor center at Leasburg Dam State Park, so I don’t know if there are any extra charges for buying the pass online.

If you have a NMSPACP, you can camp in any primitive camping area (usual cost: $8 per night) or on any developed camping area with no hookups (usual cost: $10 per night) in a New Mexico state park for no additional charge. According to the aforementioned fees, permits, and rentals page,

Primitive campsites offer no special facilities except a cleared area for camping. Sites may include trash cans, chemical toilets or parking.

Primitive camping also offer no designated sites. You’re basically boondocking when you camp in a primitive area at a New Mexico State Park.

I’ve camped in primitive camping areas at Caballo Lake State Park, Elephant Butte Lake State Park, and Brantley Lake State Park. In both of those parks, primitive camping was lakeside. I also witnessed primitive camping next to the lake at Bluewater Lake State Park. Although the primitive areas offer few or no amenities, campers are welcome to venture into other areas of the park and use the water spigots, restrooms, showers, and dumpsters if such facilities are available. (To find out what amenities are at each park, take a look at the printable New Mexico State Parks brochure.)

The developed camping areas typically offer a fire ring and a picnic table. Sometimes the developed areas offer

This is what the developed campsites look like at Brantley Lake State Park. Beware: At this park, ALL developed sites have electric hookups, so if you plan to stay in the campground, you’re going to have to pony up $4 a night, even if you have the NMSPP.

shade covers too.These campsites tend to be in campgrounds, closer to toilets (either flush or pit, depending on where you are) and sources of potable water. I’ve stayed on developed sites at Brantley Lake State Park, Percha Dam State Park, Elephant Butte State Park, Rockhound State Park, Leasburg Dam State Park, and Oliver Lee Memorial State Park. The Man spent some nights at City of Rocks State Park; while I have visited that park during the day (and think it’s a gorgeous place), I’ve never had the pleasure of camping there.

Your NMSPACP does NOT provide for free electric or sewage hookups. If you have the annual camping permit and want an electric hookup, it will cost you an additional $4 per night. A sewage hookup if you have an annual camping permit will also cost an additional $4 per night. If you have the annual camping permit and you want both an electric and sewage hookup, that will set you back $8 per night. New Mexico State Parks do not charge for water hookups where they are available.

According to the New Mexico State Parks page devoted to camping,

Sunset over Oliver Lee State Park.

Campers may reside in a park for a maximum of 14 days during a 20 day period. Campers shall completely remove camping equipment and gear from the park for 7 calendar days during the 20 day period.

Here’s what that means if you have a NMSPACP. You can stay in any New Mexico State Park for up to 14 days, then you have to leave that park. However, you can go directly to another New Mexico State park and stay there (for free if you camp in a primitive area or on a developed site with no hookups) for seven days, then turn around and go back to the park you left a week ago.

If you wanted to save money on gas, you could stay in an area where there are state parks not too far from each other (such as Elephant Butte Lake State Park, Caballo Lake State Park, and Percha Dam State Park or Rockhound State Park, Pancho Villa State Park, and City of Rocks State Park) and go in a circuit from one to another, staying two weeks at each.

This was my view of Caballo Lake when I stayed in the primitive camping area of the state park.

The NMSPACP is good for only one vehicle per site. I called the New Mexico State Parks main office to make sure I understood this point correctly. I was hoping that even though The Man and I have separate vehicles, we could share one pass. No go! However, when we were camping together at Leasburg Dam State Park, there was only one developed campsite with no hookups available, and we were allowed to have both of our rigs on the site with no problem. (Note: I had a Chevy G20 and the man had a Honda Odyssey, so both rigs fit easily on the site, facilitating our sharing of the space.)

I bought my NMSPACP early in November 2017. When I bought it, the park ranger gave me a sticker to attach on my windshield. This sticker showed that I was a pass holder and it gave the expiration date of my pass. At the time I purchased my pass, there was space for the month and the year the pass expired. (The passes may be configured differently, depending on when you read this post.) My pass said it expired 11-18 (November 2018). I didn’t think to ask at the time, so I again called the New Mexico State Parks main office to find out if that pass expired on the first day of the month noted on it, or the last day. The answer: the last day! So even though I’d bought my pass early in November 2017, it was good through the last day of the month in 2018.

The campground at Rockhound State Park near Deming, NM.

I think that’s everything I know about the New Mexico State Parks Annual Camping Pass. If you have questions on topics I didn’t cover, I strongly encourage you to call the New Mexico State Parks main office at 505-476-3355. I’ve called the office several times with questions and the woman who answered the phone was always exceptionally pleasant and helpful. Talking to her was always a joy.

The information included in this post is subject to change, especially the information on prices. Blaize Sun is not responsible if the information she gave you is no longer applicable when you read this post; this information is a starting point. Everything was correct to the best of her knowledge when the post was written. You are strongly urged to call the New Mexico State Parks office or check internet sources for updated information.

So much cool at City of Rocks State Park.

I took all of the photos in this post.