Few countries in the world rival the U.S. when it comes to diverse landscapes and sprawling geographies. America is a huge country, one that bridges two oceans (three if you include the Arctic Ocean in Alaska), several major mountain ranges (again, thanks Alaska), and nearly every climate the Earth offers up. Due to numerous factors that range from the manner and time America was “settled” to the unparalleled efforts of conservation-minded citizens to the globally unique landscapes it encompasses, many of its most incredible and compelling landscapes have been preserved by federal, state and local governments to remain forever accessible to and owned by all its citizens. Arguably, no other country has ever maintained such a vast public estate for the reasons America has.
The history of America’s public lands is dramatic, tragic, heartening, frustrating and inspiring all at the same time. It includes epic battles against giant corporations and government agencies bent on “developing” resources and creating private wealth. It includes the dark, tortuous history of Native American extermination. It includes exploration and exploitation, heroes and villains, the East and the West, oceans, rivers, deserts, glaciers and forests. It is so intertwined in America’s story that they can’t be separated from our shared history. Today, Americans enjoy access to public lands in every state in the country. Whether quaint state parks or massive federal tracts, no system of public lands rivals America’s.
State lands and parks are typically managed by the respective state’s department of natural resources or fish, wildlife and parks agency. And with more than 10,000 state parks that cover 18.5 million acres, they’re a significant piece of the public lands estate that Americans enjoy. In fact, even though they only represent about 2% of the public outdoor recreation lands in the U.S., they host nearly 29% of the visitors.
Federal lands are overseen by one of two federal agencies: the Department of Agriculture (USDA) or the Department of the Interior (DOI). Four major agencies located within the two departments directly manage specific types of public lands: the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service. Other agencies like the Bureau of Reclamation, the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Bureau of Indian Affairs manage other federal lands.
The numbers shift a bit depending on land swaps and additions, but the federal government owns about 640 million acres of the U.S., roughly 28% of the 2.27 billion acres that make up the entire country. The four agencies manage about 610.1 million acres, and the Department of Defense manages 11.4 million acres of bases, ranges and other training areas. The remaining 18.5 million acres are managed by various federal agencies.
Of the four agencies, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), housed in DOI, manages the most acres and arguably flies farthest under the radar. The BLM manages a whopping 247 million acres of land and nearly 700 million acres of subsurface mineral rights across the West. For the most part, the 247 million acres are “multiple-use” lands, which are managed for everything from wildlife habitat and recreation to mining, gas, timber and grazing. However, through the National Landscape Conservation System, about 36 million acres of the most scenic, historical and ecologically valuable BLM lands have been preserved for non-consumptive uses.
The U.S. Forest Service, the only land management agency housed in the Department of Agriculture, manages 193 million acres of national forests and grasslands in 43 states and Puerto Rico. “Forests” is a bit of a misnomer; national forests encompass prairies, red rock deserts, coastlines and everything in between. Like BLM lands, national forests are managed for a variety of uses including wildlife habitat, recreation, timber, gas, grazing, power transmission and even transportation.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, back in Interior, manages an 89.1-million-acre network of wildlife refuges, waterfowl production areas and wildlife coordination units in the National Wildlife Refuge System spread across the entire country. Primarily focused on the preservation and protection of wildlife habitat and refuges, wildlife refuges do offer recreation opportunities, even if they remain purposefully underdeveloped from a recreation standpoint.
The crown jewels of America’s public lands system actually make up the smallest set of our public lands tapestry. Our “Best Idea,” the national parks, comprise about 79.8 million acres of the country. Managed by the National Park Service, these lands preserve exceptional habitats, landscapes and cultural treasures by prohibiting resource extraction and strictly controlling public access.
Much of the federal estate is located in the West, a function of how the government disposed of land as Americans expanded into the western U.S. The federal government owns roughly 46.4% of the 11 coterminous western states and roughly 61.3% of Alaska. Across the rest of the country, the federal government owns only 4.2% of the total land mass. In Nevada, the feds own a whopping 79.6% of the state, while in Connecticut, the feds only own 0.3% of the land. These imbalances shed some light on the contentious debates about federal land ownership and management that have plagued the West since Lewis and Clark first ventured up the Missouri River.
This doesn’t mean the East is entirely private. The Weeks Act of 1911 allowed the federal government to purchase private lands in the East and establish national forests that protected watersheds and wildlife habitats. Today, national forests run up and down much of the Appalachian Mountains, and there are national forests in the upper Midwest, the Southeast and even Texas. Add a diverse and sprawling system of state parks and some of the most popular (and cool) national parks and easterners have plenty of public land to explore and enjoy.
It also doesn’t mean that public lands in the East are immune from controversy. Mining, gas and oil development, timber extraction, wind and hydropower projects and private lands development from the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness to the coast of Florida are heatedly debated in public meetings and state legislatures.
Included in the matrix of public land types – national parks, national forests, BLM lands, and wildlife refuges – are other designations that Congress or the President can apply to federal lands. For the most part, Congress holds the cards when it comes to adding new public lands or applying a specific designation to existing lands.
Wilderness Areas may be the most well known (and controversial) type of designation Congress can apply to existing federal lands. Wilderness Areas preserve specific tracts of public lands according to the Wilderness Act of 1964, which basically prohibits everything except hiking, horse packing and (as a compromise on the initial legislation) grazing. All four of the major land management agencies manage Wilderness Areas, with the Park Service managing the most Wilderness acreage in the National Wilderness Preservation System (much of it in Alaska) and the Forest Service managing the highest number of Wilderness Areas (most of them in the Lower 48). All told, Wilderness covers 2.7% of the lands in the lower 48 and about 5% if you include Alaska.
National Monuments, also controversial, are designated by the President and overlaid onto existing federal lands to create specific management prescriptions for areas that hold special historical, archeological or scientific values. Some, like the recently designated Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument and the long-ago designated Grand Teton National Monument (now a national park), were created by private individuals who donated land to the government before it was designated a monument. Because they are created by the President alone and typically reduce or prohibit certain types of activities like mining, timber extraction or off-road vehicle use, National Monuments often generate vocal support or opposition.
Congress can also apply National Scenic Area, National Recreation Area, National Historic or host of other site-specific designations to a certain tract of land as well. Congress and the land agencies can also purchase, sell or trade public land with willing private sellers. Much of this revolves around private inholdings, which are tracts of privately owned land that fall within the boundaries of federal land. Agencies can swap these private parcels for other public parcels that may be more suitable for private access or development.
The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) provides funding for the purchase of key parcels of private land owned by willing sellers. This program has protected nearly 5 million acres in its 50-plus-year history, facilitating access to other public lands and unifying boundaries to benefit wildlife and watersheds. The actual monies come from royalties that energy companies pay the federal government for offshore oil drilling. But each year, Congress diverts about half of the funds from the purchase or protection of additional lands to other programs, leaving the LWCF underfunded. In 2016, Congress appeared ready to shutter the program entirely, but sportsmen and outdoor recreation groups marshaled enough public support to maintain the LWCF at its current funding levels.
Importantly, America has this incredible public lands matrix only because its citizens have fought for it. Throughout our checkered history, corporate and individual greed have repeatedly threatened this legacy. Today, climate change, air pollution, invasive species and overuse exacerbate the still-present political threats. Our public lands require an engaged, active constituency.
Fortunately, it’s easy to participate. There are literally thousands of local “friends groups” that need volunteers, donations and support. There are activity-specific groups for hikers, climbers, mountain bikers, paddlers, OHV-ers and every other kind of user that all work on public lands issues. The National Park Service, the Forest Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service each have a Congressionally chartered foundation that raises funds to improve on-the-ground conditions for each agencies’ respective landscapes, and right now, Congress is actively debating the creation of a BLM Foundation. Simply put, helping our public lands is a Google search away.
So there they are. Nearly 700 million acres of land owned by every one of us. Some of them crowded; most of them empty. Some of them far away fantasies offering bucket list experiences; most of them closer and more accessible than we realize. Go visit, thank a ranger, drop a couple bucks in the donation tube, and stay engaged. Our public lands are ours to lose.