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,
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…
- 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.
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
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.
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.
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…
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.
Great article with lots of good info Thanks for pointing out the differences That’s a lot to digest for sure if you are a full time nomad traveler……… even for a part time down to the occasional traveler
Another informative article!! I didn’t know about the free camping at National Wildlife Refuges either.
I guess every one is different and some we can camp in and some we can’t.
It’s amazing to me how much I learn when writing blog posts!
Thanks for reading and commenting, Tina. I appreciate your support!