A traveler’s guide to America’s federal lands

National parks, monuments, wild rivers, historic sites—what’s the difference?

From the red sandstone formations of Utah to the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, the United States holds a wealth of dazzling, resource-rich wild spaces. The government has been designating and extending protections for its public lands for a hundred years since the U.S. Forest Service was established in 1905. The U.S. has added dozens of designations to better protect these resources for future generations. It’s resulted in a labyrinth of acronyms and confusing titles that can easily mystify travelers.

While rules vary from site to site, it’s good to generally know where you can camp, hunt, or even cut your own holiday tree. On some lands, these activities are welcomed—on others, they could result in a fine or jail time.

The first step to understanding our federal lands is knowing the players. Ninety-five percent of natural spaces open to the public are managed by four agencies: the National Parks Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Here are the differences in these agencies’ missions, the sort of lands they oversee—and what that means for travelers. 

The National Parks System

Who manages the land? The National Parks Service (NPS), founded in 1916, has a dual mission: to preserve unique resources and make them accessible for public use and enjoyment. NPS lands generally receive a higher level of protection than other agencies.

What is it? The National Parks System contains a lot more than the 63 National Parks, which are large areas with outstanding natural features and ecological resources. It also includes National Preserves and National Seashores, which function much like national parks.

The NPS also oversees areas of historical significance. These include National Historic Sites, which are specific locations—including homes or schools (like Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas). National Historical Parks preserve broader areas related to events or people in American history—such as the Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia, which includes Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. National Battlefield Parks/Sites and National Military Parks commemorate military history and National Memorials commemorate people or events. (Click here to search all NPS sites.)

What can you do there? National Parks tend to be the most restrictive—typically prohibiting activities including hunting, off-leashed pets, and drone use. National Preserves are more lenient with activities that leave a larger footprint—hunting, fishing, off-roading, etc. Inside historic buildings, there are strict rules about where visitors can walk and sit, and what they can touch.

National Wildlife Refuge

Who manages it? The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) main mission is  the conservation of wild habitats. That includes enforcing wildlife laws, protecting endangered species, and managing migratory birds. 

What is it? The National Wildlife Refuge encompasses all lands managed by the FWS. (Find a refuge open to visitors here.) This includes Waterfowl Production Areas, which are small wetlands or grassland habitats for migratory birds; Wildlife Coordination Areas, which focus on wildlife conservation; and National Fish Hatcheries, which produce and distribute fish for recreation or conservation. Bears Bluff National Fish Hatchery in South Carolina and Ankeny National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon are both open to visitors.

What can you do there? Wildlife-related activities like bird watching are prioritized on FWS lands—which also permit responsible hunting and fishing “to ensure sustainable wildlife populations.” Hatcheries also offer opportunities to hike, bird watch, fish, or visit an aquarium. Visitors have a list of rules to follow on FWS land, including restrictions on alcohol and drug use.

(A birding boom could help fund conservation—here’s how.)

National System of Public Lands

Who manages it? The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages 12 percent of land in the U.S., encompassing forests, mountains, grasslands, arctic tundra, and deserts. The agency is responsible for sustainable energy development, timber harvesting, water use, livestock grazing, and recreation (like hunting and fishing) as well as some conservation of wildlife and aquatic habitat. 

What is it? The National System of Public Lands is the general name for BLM lands, including National Conservation Areas, places designated by Congress to protect and manage lands for the public’s enjoyment. These lands can also contain Areas of Critical Environmental Concern, which require special management attention to protect important historic, cultural, or scenic values—or to protect life and safety from natural hazards. (Click here to see BLM lands you can visit, including Red Rock Canyon in Nevada and Imperial Sand Dunes in California.)

(Here’s how to see dazzling rock formations in the New Mexico wilderness.)

What can you do there? BLM lands generally offer a wider variety of permitted uses than National Parks and the National Wildlife Refuge, though visitors should check the rules at specific sites. Permits and passes may also need to be purchased, and rules may change depending on the time of year.

The National Forest System

Who manages it? The U.S. Forest Service (FS) is the oldest of the four agencies. Today, the FS’s duties include restoring and protecting water, air, and soil, conducting controlled fires, and managing invasive species. Like BLM, the FS manages renewable resources for recreation and livestock grazing.

What is it? The National Forest System is the general name for FS lands, including Natural Scenic Areas, National Volcanic Monuments, and Special Management Areas, which function like the BLM’s areas of critical environmental concern. The FS also has Inventoried Roadless Areas, where road construction is mostly prohibited. (Click here to see FS lands you can visit, including the Coconino National Forest in Arizona and the Salmon-Challis National Forest in Idaho.)

What can you do there? Like BLM, FS lands generally offer a wider variety of permitted uses, though visitors should check the rules at specific sites. Dozens of national forests allow visitors to cut their own Christmas trees, for example, but permits need to be purchased first.

What else do travelers need to know?

What about places managed by more than one agency? Decisions about how the land should be used are made even more complicated when two of the four agencies share management of a given area. National Monuments, which feature both natural areas and areas of cultural, historic, or archeological significance, are often managed by more than one entity. At Bears Ears National Monument, for example, visitors will see a map with a swath of land managed by BLM, a corner managed by FS, and state and private property dotted throughout.

What’s the difference between Wild and Scenic Rivers? Wild Rivers do not have dams or other impoundments, and are generally inaccessible except by trail. Scenic Rivers are also free from impoundments, but more accessible by roads. Both designations are managed by combinations of the four agencies.

Are federal entities the only stakeholders? Further complicating matters, much of the nation’s federal land bleeds into private and Native land. States including Utah and Montana have also fought for control over federal lands, though critics say states would struggle to properly maintain these spaces, which would result in restricted access to the public. 

What about locally managed designations? Some public lands may receive technical or financial aid from NPS but are managed locally. These include National Heritage Areas—like the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor along the southeast Atlantic coast—and the more than 2,500 National Historic Landmarks around the country.

Don’t forget: No matter who owns the land, it’s always necessary to be mindful of your impact on the ecosystem by disposing waste properly, leaving what you find, and respecting wildlife.

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