Photo: Grant Ordelheide/TandemStock

What are Public Lands in the U.S.?

Your guide to understanding, finding, and exploring America’s greatest treasure

“Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it.” Theodore Roosevelt said this about the Grand Canyon in 1903, but he might as well have been talking about all of nature. That sentiment helped shape the protection of wild areas in the United States, and today some 840 million acres—more than one third of the country—is public land. This shared resource encompasses natural wonders like the Grand Canyon and local escapes like Griffith Park in Los Angeles. Public land is managed by various federal, state, and local agencies, but make no mistake: It belongs to all of us, and is open to everyone. 

But while more Americans than ever are visiting public lands, they still only represent a small fraction of the population. Some 75% of Americans aren’t using public lands at all. And those that do are not representative of the country’s demographics. Black and Hispanic Americans are significantly underrepresented in the outdoors. And visitation by all demographics must contend with competition from smartphones and screens. At the same time, special interest groups threaten access and protection for wild places. In many ways, we live at a crossroads for public lands, which is why we named our company after this national treasure, and why ensuring access and protection for public lands is at the heart of our mission. 

That mission starts with helping everyone understand what public lands are, and how to find and visit them. Below you’ll find a guide to public lands in the United States, and across this site you’ll find content—about gear, skills, destinations, conservation, and inspiration—all designed with one goal in mind: to help you explore our public lands. 

History of Our Public Lands

To understand public lands in America today we must first understand its past. Native American people lived on and cared for the land for millennia––and still do. What we call public land was home to a vast array of Indigenous cultures long before it was ever designated as a park or monument or refuge. In many cases our public lands, including iconic national parks like Yosemite and Glacier and Yellowstone, were created through dispossession via the forced removal of the Indigenous people who lived there. 

In the late 1700s and through the 1800s, the federal government took Native lands directly and also acquired vast tracts of land from other colonial powers, such as Spain and France. Over time, much of this land was transferred to state and private ownership, but the federal government still manages 640 million acres. This land is held in trust for the American people, and primarily managed by four agencies: the National Park Service (NPS), the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the United States Forest Service (USFS), and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). A small share of federal land is managed by the Department of Defense and other agencies. The remaining 199 million acres of public land is managed by state and local agencies. 

 

Here are the key agencies and what they do:

Congaree National Park, South Carolina. Photo: Adam Mowery/TandemStock;

The National Park Service

How much land: 84 million acres, 3.7% of the country’s land 

What it manages: 423 sites, 63 of which are national parks

National parks can only be created by Congress. The oldest park is Yellowstone, which was established on March 1, 1872. Our newest park is the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve in West Virginia, which was created in December 2020. The NPS purview is vast and far-ranging. Most people are aware of the iconic locations it manages, like Grand Canyon National Park, Grand Teton National Park, and Yosemite National Park, but the NPS maintains and protects more than 84 million acres of land under 28 different designations. These range from national battlefields to national historic parks, and national recreation areas to national seashores. Little-known fact: The President of the United States lives in a national park (The White House is managed by the NPS, as is nearby President’s Park). 

National parks have strict rules (such as no hunting, and no dogs except in limited areas) and are often more accessible than other federally managed public lands. Think bathrooms, visitor centers, food and lodging concessions, and paved trails and roads. The most popular national parks have seen record visitation in recent years, and can be crowded (some now require reservations just to visit for the day). Others, like Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota and Congaree National Park in South Carolina (and virtually all the Alaska parks), still offer unparalleled solitude. Entrance fees vary, but frequent visitors can buy an annual pass for $80, which offers unlimited access and is far and away the best value in the outdoors. 

More info: NPS.gov 

Photo Credit: D Scott Clark/TandemStock

Bureau of Land Management

How much land: 248 million acres,10.5% of all land in the country

What it manages: 221 wilderness areas; 27 national monuments; 12 national conservation areas; 2,400 miles of Wild and Scenic Rivers; 6,000 miles of National Scenic and Historic Trails

BLM land is concentrated in the Western U.S. and operates to “sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of public lands” to be used and enjoyed by the public. This means that it is a land of many uses: outdoor recreation, yes, but also livestock grazing, logging, mining, and conservation. A whopping one third of the country’s minerals are on BLM lands. The agency has to balance competing interests, often between extracting natural resources and conservation.

More than 99% of BLM land is free to use and has fewer rules than you’ll find in national parks. The rules that do exist are unsurprising, like driving only on designated off-road routes and observing Leave No Trace principles. The BLM manages everything from the Class IV rapids on the Arkansas River through Browns Canyon National Monument to the site for Burning Man in the Black Rock Desert to Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The BLM also manages, or jointly manages, land with different designations that have different rules, so it’s important to check before you go.

More info: blm.gov

Mendenhall Glacier in Tongass National Forest Photo: Mark Kelley/TandemStock

The United States Forest Service 

How much land: 193 million acres, 8.5% of the country’s land

What it manages: 154 national forests, 20 national grasslands, 80 experimental forests and ranges, more than 158,000 miles of trails and 5,000 miles of Wild and Scenic rivers

Like the BLM, the USFS manages lands for multiple uses, from mineral extraction to habitat restoration and outdoor recreation. That’s why you’ll see logging, or evidence of past logging, in many national forests (in fact, the USFS is in the Department of Agriculture, not the Interior). Also like the BLM, these lands often have less development and rules than national parks do, and many opportunities to explore pristine wilderness. According to the National Forest Foundation, more than 7 in 10 of all Americans live within 100 miles of a national forest. In fact, 122 of the country’s ski resorts are located on national forest land. The largest national forest is the 17-million-acre Tongass National Forest along the southwest coast of Alaska, which is part of the largest temperate rainforest in the world. 

More info: https://www.fs.usda.gov/

Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska Photo Credit: Ian Shive/TandemStock

United States Fish and Wildlife Service 

How much land: 95 million acres (3.9% of the country’s land) and 760 million acres of submerged lands and waters

What it manages: More than 560 national wildlife refuges, waterfowl production areas, and small wetlands, as well as vast marine sanctuaries. 

The USFWS mission is to protect endangered species, restore fisheries, conserve and restore wildlife habitats, uphold wildlife laws, and manage migratory birds. The agency manages our National Wildlife Refuge System, which contains more than 560 national wildlife refuges (some 500 of which are open to the public and offer free entry). These protected areas represent some of the most underappreciated public lands in the country.

More info: https://www.fws.gov/

Escalante River Photo Credit: Ethan Welty/TandemStock

State and Local Government

How much land: 199 million acres, 8.7% of the country’s land.

There’s almost 200 million acres of public land that’s not managed by the federal government and is instead managed by state and local governments, like city and county parks and state parks, forests, and wildlife management areas. While federal public lands are owned by the public, state lands are not owned by state residents in the same way, but are largely still open for the public to enjoy. 

Public Land Designations

Much of our public land is classified in ways that help regulate how it’s managed and used. The designations revolve around both conservation and recreation. The agencies above manage these units, and sometimes manage them jointly. Here are the key designations you’ll find.   

National Recreation Areas:  These areas are often located near large reservoirs that are open to swimming, paddling, fishing, and boating. The NPS manages some of these areas, and the BLM and USFS manage many of them. Example: Bighorn Canyon in Montana and Wyoming (https://www.nps.gov/bica/index.htm).

National Conservation Areas: This land has significant cultural, historical, or recreational value. These are solely managed by the BLM. Example: Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area on the Oregon coast (https://www.blm.gov/learn/interpretive-centers/yaquina). 

National Scenic Trails: These 11 trails are showpieces of the national trail system. They must be at least 100 miles long (many are several thousand miles) and they all provide opportunities for hiking through some of the country’s most spectacular terrain. Example: California's Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail (https://www.pcta.org/). 

National Monuments: These lands typically preserve at least one nationally significant resource. The country’s 155 national monuments can be managed by any or all of the four federal agencies. Example: Canyons of the Ancients National Monument in Colorado (https://www.blm.gov/programs/national-conservation-lands/colorado/canyons-of-the-ancients).

Wild and Scenic Riverways: In this category, you’ll find more than 13,000 miles of free-flowing (no dams) streams or rivers with natural, cultural, or recreational value. Wild and Scenic Rivers are jointly managed by the BLM, NPS, USFWS, and the USFS. Example: The Buffalo River in Arkansas (https://www.rivers.gov/rivers/buffalo.php).

Wilderness Areas: This is where to look for the wildest, most pristine pockets of wilderness across the country. The 1964 Wilderness Act created a system to preserve land at the highest level of protection offered for federally managed public lands. Essentially, no development or mechanized travel is allowed. The 760 wilderness areas include more than 109 million acres of national parks, national forests, USFWS lands, and BLM land. Example: The Weminuche Wilderness in Colorado (https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/sanjuan/recarea/?recid=81032). 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.