Your Cheat Sheet Guide to Public Lands

There’s a lot to learn about the third of the country that belongs to us all; here’s where to start and what to know.

Has anyone ever told you that you’re a public-land owner? It’s true! The U.S. has designated some 840 million acres as public land set aside for all. That acreage, open to everyone to enjoy, adds up to more than one-third of the country. And though we all own them, it’s various local, state, tribal, and federal agencies that handle their management. 

This kind of mixed bag can mean a lot of acronyms at once to explain what’s what. And it takes some time to dive into the full history and background of the various types, management agencies and designations that make up the rich and complex tapestry that is the public lands we share.

Here’s your entry reference in two pieces: PART I, first breaking down the places that matter most, below; and PART II, focusing on the various stakeholders who manage and use the lands. 


What are public lands for?

Short answer: all kinds of things. You probably think of local, state, and national parks as places for outdoor recreation—and they are. Public lands are excellent destinations for hiking, camping, fishing, hunting, cycling, skiing, paddling, and any other outdoor activity you can think of.

But beyond active pursuits, they’re also sites for logging, mining, grazing, research, and wildlife conservation. And even before all that, they are for habitation, for all public lands are, historically, Native American homelands of sacred cultural significance to the people who lived on and cared for them for centuries. Managers must often balance the competing interests of protection, extraction, and traditional habitation as they make decisions about public lands.

Learn more about the cultural history of public lands you visit.


Where can I find public lands?

Everywhere! These are the major types of public lands in the U.S., including the best reason to experience each in person (and then to become an advocate for their preservation), plus additional resources to find out more about what makes the U.S. system of public lands such a national treasure.  



Look no further than your city and county’s pockets of green space, municipal trails, and your state’s protected lands. 

Why you should visit: a quick (and often critical) nature fix.

Why you should care: These local areas are particularly important because for most people, they’re the nearest and easiest public lands to access.



These are the most famed, prized and popular crown jewels of our public land system (think: iconic parks like Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite).

Why visit: Unparalleled scenic beauty and outdoor recreation, with substantial development to aid access for all, from paved roads and visitor centers to lodging, restaurants, and gift shops (entry fees and sometimes reservations apply).

Why care: Beyond the national parks, the National Park Service also manages a number of other lands that include military and historic sites, long trails, seashores, and Wild & Scenic Rivers. Prioritizing both access and conservation, NPS rules are stricter (no drilling; bikes and boats are often restricted to certain areas; hunting and dogs not allowed or limited; and activities often require permits).

Learn more about the National Park Service.


These “lands of many uses” are managed by the U.S. Forest Service for recreation, but also logging, drilling, wildfire mitigation, and ecosystem protection. 

Why visit: Widely permitted for everything from hunting, hiking with dogs, paddling, resort skiing, and four-wheeling to cutting down your own Christmas tree. 

Why care: They offer a wealth of outdoor opportunities, and typically have fewer use regulations and less development than national parks (think: vault toilets, primitive campsites, and high-clearance dirt roads). Most all are free to visit and offer free camping almost anywhere you please. (In more popular areas, fees plus permits for certain activities apply.) 

Learn more about USFS lands.



The largest chunk of the country’s public lands vary widely, and like national forests, are managed or co-managed by the BLM for multiple uses. That means recreation as well as livestock grazing, drilling, mining, logging, and renewable energy development.

Why visit: Free access to all kinds of outdoor recreation, including off-roading and whitewater rafting, where you can also camp almost anywhere in certain areas. 

Why care: More than 99 percent of these lands, mostly located in the West, are largely free to enjoy, with far fewer regulations than national parks and limited development (think: primitive campsites and rugged roads). The various land types—including national scenic trails, national recreation areas, wilderness areas, and wild and scenic rivers—have different rules and permitted activities.

Learn more about BLM lands.



The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has a clearly defined, main goal in managing these lands: Protect wildlife. But that doesn’t mean they’re without other outdoor activities that fit in with that mission.

Why visit: Refuges are excellent for fishing and hunting (quotas are carefully managed), hiking, birding, nature photography, and educational programs.

Why care: Most are open to the public, for free, where the USFWS runs land (and waters) set aside as habitat for animals ranging from bison to crocodiles to migratory birds to fish.



Not every acre of public land falls into the major categories above. Wilderness areas (undeveloped tracts within other protected lands and managed by any of the above agencies) boast the highest level of protection a federal land can get, strictly limiting recreational use to human- or animal- power only. There are also National Recreation Areas, National Conservation Areas, National Scenic Trails, and Wild & Scenic Rivers, to name a few. Bottom line: There are probably more public lands to enjoy than you realize.


So, why do public lands matter?

You can understand the obvious (personal) value in the existence of and access to these lands: providing the foundational support for the activities you love most. But then there’s the wild animals, healthy ecosystems, thriving economies, and cultural sites that form the foundation of belief systems: They all rely on these places, too.

Here’s the catch: The vast majority of these 840 million acres DO NOT have any form of protection from development or extractive industries. Only vigilant support of the people and organizations who work to protect and preserve these lands will ensure that they stay open for all. 

(Read about the successful battles to protect sensitive and threatened public lands from the desert Southwest to the wilds of the Alaskan Arctic.) 

— Next up: Learn more about the people who maintain public lands, and what their interest, use and management means for your access.

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.