What are public lands? Images of National Parks, Forests, BLM land, and national seashores

What Are Public Lands? An Introduction to Public Lands in America

America’s public lands are a treasure and representation of American values and history. From the soarking peaks of Rocky Mountain, Mount Rainer and Glacier National Park, to the depths of Grand Canyon and Yosemite Valley, the U.S. national park system is often called ‘America’s Best Idea’ and a reflection of our country at its best.

National forests and BLM land include tens of millions of acres of additional land that is used for a multitude or shared purposes. Tribal nations and leaders continue to manage lands owned by tribes, with some open to the public and others open only to tribal members. Closer to home, every states manages its own park system, while some have their own forests and wildlife preserves as well. In your county and municipality, you have likely enjoyed public lands in the form of county and city parks and schoolyards.

In this guide, we’ll provide a comprehensive answer to the common question, ‘what are public lands?’ We will also share a brief overview of the history of public lands, various types of designations and public land management agencies, and advice to protect public lands through advocacy and Leave No Trace ethics.

Table of Contents

What are Public Lands? A Definition:

Public lands, at the most basic level, are lands that are held and administered by the government, whether it be federal, state, or local. They are maintained for the use and enjoyment of the public, and serve a variety of purposes including conservation, recreation, and resource extraction.

A History of Public Lands in America

The history of public lands in America is deeply intertwined with the history of the nation itself. The concept of public lands dates back to the early days of the nation when the federal government began acquiring lands shortly after the Revolutionary War. At this time, the primary purpose of these lands was for settlement and development in order to establish the young nation’s stability and growth.

The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 was a pivotal milestone that laid the groundwork for the public lands system, as it established an organized policy for the orderly expansion of the United States across the continent. As America expanded westward throughout the 19th century, these public lands were largely seen as a vast resource to be used for economic growth. This period witnessed significant activities such as mining, logging, and farming on these lands, which played a crucial role in the nation’s economic expansion and development.

However, as the nation grew and industrialized toward the end of the 19th century, a new and transformative attitude toward public lands began to emerge. This shift was marked by the establishment of Yellowstone National Park in 1872, which signaled the beginning of a preservationist movement. This movement aimed to protect and preserve certain public lands for their scenic beauty, ecological value, and recreational potential, rather than for their economic utility.

Yellowstone National Park History

This trend of conservation and preservation continued and expanded into the 20th century. In 1916, the National Park Service was created, institutionalizing the commitment to protect and manage these national treasures. Further, the Wilderness Act of 1964 marked another significant advancement in the preservation of public lands, highlighting their intrinsic value beyond economic exploitation.

Today, public lands in the United States are managed by a diverse array of federal and state agencies, serving a wide array of purposes. They offer opportunities for outdoor recreation, act as preserves for natural and cultural resources, contribute to scientific research, and provide habitats for diverse wildlife. However, they also face threats, like the growing impacts associated with outdoor recreation, a decline in funding from sporting and angling fees, a growing political partisan divide, and the effects of global climate change.

Different Types of Public Lands

Public lands in the US can be divided into several different types, each with its own set of regulations and restrictions. These include National Parks, National Forests, State Parks, and more. In the sections below, we will provide a brief overview of each type of public land.

National Parks
Transponder Lane at Rocky Mountain National Park

Tribal Lands

National Parks are federally protected areas designed to preserve the natural beauty of America’s most stunning landscapes. These parks, managed by the National Park Service, offer a variety of outdoor recreational activities while prioritizing conservation and education about America’s natural and cultural heritage.

National Historic Sites and Parks

National Historic Sites and Parks are designated to protect significant cultural or historical sites, buildings, or landscapes. Managed by the National Park Service, they provide opportunities for public education and understanding of important aspects of American history.

recreation area

National Monuments

National Monuments are designated to protect specific natural, cultural, or historic features of national importance. They are managed by various agencies, including the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, and the U.S. Forest Service.

National Recreation Areas

National Recreation Areas are designated lands that offer a variety of outdoor recreational opportunities. Often located near major urban centers, these areas are typically characterized by a combination of scenic natural features and developed facilities, making them accessible and enjoyable for large numbers of people.

National Conservation Areas

National Conservation Areas are designated to protect significant natural landscapes with outstanding cultural, ecological, and scientific values. They are managed primarily by the Bureau of Land Management and offer diverse recreational opportunities while ensuring long-term protection of the area’s natural resources.

About Berthoud Pass, Colorado

National Forests and Grasslands

National Forests and Grasslands are areas of public land managed by the U.S. Forest Service. These lands are a significant source of timber and other forest products while also providing recreational opportunities, wildlife habitat, historic preservation, and conservation of watersheds.

National Seashores and Lakeshores

National Seashores and Lakeshores are designated areas that protect the coastline and promote the public enjoyment of America’s coasts and lakes. These areas often preserve both the natural ecosystems and cultural heritage of these regions, and are typically managed by the National Park Service.

National Wildlife Refuges

National Wildlife Refuges are areas specifically designated for the protection and conservation of wildlife. These lands, managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, are home to a plethora of species and often provide crucial habitats for migratory birds, threatened or endangered species, and a diverse range of fauna and flora.

National Marine Sanctuaries

National Marine Sanctuaries are marine areas that protect ocean and Great Lakes waters. These sanctuaries, managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), aim to conserve, protect, and enhance their biodiversity, ecological integrity, and cultural legacy.

National Scenic and Historic Trails

National Scenic and Historic Trails are designated to celebrate and preserve significant routes of travel through the U.S. These trails, managed by various federal and state agencies, provide opportunities for hiking, sightseeing, and historical education.

Wild and Scenic Rivers

Wild and Scenic Rivers are designated to protect rivers with outstanding natural, cultural, and recreational values in a free-flowing condition. These areas are managed by several agencies including the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Bureau of Land Management.

BLM (Bureau of Land Management) Land

BLM (Bureau of Land Management) Land is a type of public land that is managed for multiple uses, such as grazing, mining, logging, and recreation. Unlike National Parks, which focus on preservation, BLM lands balance use and conservation to serve the needs of various stakeholders.

Mt Evans Wilderness Name Change

Wilderness Areas

Wilderness Areas are federally designated areas that are managed for the primary purpose of preserving their natural conditions. These areas, which can be found within National Parks, Forests, and Wildlife Refuges, are meant to be untouched by human structures or development, allowing visitors to experience truly wild and natural landscapes.

Wilderness Study Areas (WSA)

Wilderness Areas are federally designated areas that are managed for the primary purpose of preserving their natural conditions. These areas, which can be found within National Parks, Forests, and Wildlife Refuges, are meant to be untouched by human structures or development, allowing visitors to experience truly wild and natural landscapes.

Tribal Lands

Wilderness Areas are federally designated areas that are managed for the primary purpose of preserving their natural conditions. These areas, which can be found within National Parks, Forests, and Wildlife Refuges, are meant to be untouched by human structures or development, allowing visitors to experience truly wild and natural landscapes.

State Lands

State Public Lands include state parks, forests, and wildlife refuges. They are managed by individual state agencies and serve a variety of purposes such as recreation, conservation, and resource extraction. Each state has its own regulations and rules regarding the use and conservation of these lands.

State Lands

Local Public Lands include county and municipal parks. These are often the most accessible public lands for many people, providing recreational opportunities, preserving local ecosystems, and enhancing the quality of life in urban and suburban communities. Denver is unique for its system of city-owned mountain parks, including Summit Lake at 13,000 feet near the summit of Mount Blue Sky.

How are Public Lands Managed?

The management of public lands is complicated by to the wide variety of stakeholders and interests with a stake in policy decisions and outcomes.

For example, outdoor recreation groups are often in conflict with resource extraction interests like mining and timber companies. However, there are also conflicts between different types of user groups, public and private landowners, different levels of government, and even the different federal land management agencies.

Caring for Public Lands

Here are some of the main factors and considerations that influence public land management decisions.

  1. Law and Policy: Agencies are bound by laws and official policy when deciding how to manage lands first and foremost.
  2. Environmental Protection: All public lands take environmental protection into account, though to varying degree. Parks receive more protection than forests or grasslands.
  3. Recreational Use: Almost all public lands provide recreation opportunities which must be balanced with resource extraction interests.
  4. Resource Extraction: The interests of timber companies, mining groups, ranchers, and other resource extraction companies comes into play often with national forests and BLM land.
  5. Cultural and Historical Preservation: Significant historical ruins remain scattered across public lands and often require special protection and restoration.
  6. Stakeholder Input: Management is improved by collaborating and consulting with multiple interest groups and stakeholders before making decisions or changes.
  7. Scientific Research: Data and insights from biological and ecological research provides insights for wildlife management, ecosystem health, environmental quality, and the impacts of climate change (among other things).
  8. Public Interest: The public influences agency management decisions by sharing public comments on proposed plans, rules, and decisions and showing up to speak at public meetings or town halls.


At the local level, public lands are managed in largely the same way, though it often varies by state in terms of the specific agencies involved, how they are funded, and the laws they must operate under.

Public Land Management Agencies

Here is a quick introduction to the four major public land management agencies at the federal level.

U.S. Forest Service

The U.S. Forest Service, established in 1905, is an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that administers the nation’s 154 national forests and 20 national grasslands. The Forest Service manages these lands for multiple uses, including timber harvesting, recreation, grazing, wildlife habitat, and watershed protection.

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, established in 1940, is an agency within the U.S. Department of the Interior. It manages the National Wildlife Refuge System, a network of lands and waters set aside for the conservation of fish, wildlife, and plants, including threatened and endangered species.

Bureau of Land Management

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), established in 1946, is an agency within the U.S. Department of the Interior. It manages over 245 million acres of public land, making it the largest landholding agency. The BLM administers these lands under a multiple-use and sustained-yield mandate, balancing uses such as energy development, livestock grazing, recreation, and conservation.

National Park Service

The National Park Service, established in 1916, is an agency within the U.S. Department of the Interior. It is responsible for managing the nation’s 63 national parks and many national monuments, historic sites, battlefields, and other protected areas. The Park Service’s mission is to “preserve unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.”

Why are Public Lands Important?

There are a lot of benefits to public lands (too many to count). I tried to sum up six of the biggest reasons why public lands are important below.

1. The Heritage and Recreational Value of Public Lands

Public lands are undeniably a cornerstone of America’s heritage. They are intertwined with the history of the nation itself, dating back to the early days of the federal government’s land acquisition after the Revolutionary War. Today, these lands continue to play a pivotal role in the nation’s quality of life by providing countless recreational opportunities.

2. Public Lands as Preservers of History and Culture

In addition to their recreational value, public lands preserve important historical and cultural sites. These include significant archaeological sites, historic battlefields, and cultural landscapes that tell the story of America’s past. By protecting these sites, public lands contribute to historical understanding and cultural preservation.

3. The Role of Public Lands in Scientific Research

Public lands also play a crucial role in scientific research. They serve as living laboratories where scientists can study diverse ecosystems, geologic formations, and species. Research conducted on these lands contributes to our understanding of the natural world and helps inform management decisions and conservation strategies.

4. Public Lands and Ecosystem Conservation

Moreover, public lands protect diverse ecosystems and wildlife. They provide critical habitats for a myriad of species, including many that are threatened or endangered. By preserving these ecosystems, public lands contribute to biodiversity conservation and the overall health of the planet.

5. Public Lands as a Source of Natural Resources

Public lands also serve as a source of natural resources. They provide timber, minerals, and other resources that drive economic growth. At the same time, they are managed to ensure the sustainable use of these resources, balancing economic interests with environmental protection.

6. Mitigating Climate Change through Public Lands

Another crucial role of public lands is in mitigating climate change. Forests, grasslands, and wetlands on public lands sequester significant amounts of carbon, helping to offset greenhouse gas emissions. Furthermore, these lands are managed to enhance their resilience to changing climate conditions and to mitigate the impacts of climate change on wildlife and ecosystems.

14er Peak Steward

7 Leave No Trace Principles for Public Lands

The Leave No Trace principles are a set of guidelines for outdoor conduct that are universally applicable on all public lands. They include:

  1. Plan Ahead and Prepare: Understand the regulations and special concerns for the area you’ll visit. Prepare for extreme weather, hazards, and emergencies.
  2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces: Durable surfaces include established trails and campsites, rock, gravel, dry grasses or snow.
  3. Dispose of Waste Properly: Pack it in, pack it out. Inspect your campsite and rest areas for trash or spilled foods.
  4. Leave What You Find: Examine, but do not touch cultural or historic structures and artifacts. Do not damage live trees by using them for hammocking, etc.
  5. Minimize Campfire Impact: Campfires can cause lasting impacts to the backcountry. Use a lightweight stove for cooking and a lantern for light.
  6. Respect Wildlife: Observe wildlife from a distance. Do not follow or approach them.
  7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors: Respect other visitors and protect the quality of their experience.

How to Advocate for Public Land Protections

Preserving public lands for future generations is a responsibility we all share. Here are some ways you can advocate for the protection of these precious resources:

  1. Educate Yourself and Others: Learn about the issues affecting public lands and share this knowledge with others. This can include understanding the different types of public lands, the threats they face, and the benefits they provide.
  2. Support Conservation Organizations: Many non-profit organizations are dedicated to protecting public lands and could benefit from your support. This can be in the form of donations, volunteering, or participating in their advocacy campaigns.
  3. Get Involved Politically: Advocate for public lands at the local, state, and national level by contacting your representatives, attending public meetings, and voting in elections. Policy decisions can have a significant impact on the future of public lands.
  4. Practice Responsible Recreation: Follow the Leave No Trace principles when visiting public lands to reduce your impact and help preserve these areas for future generations.
  5. Spread the Word: Use your voice to raise awareness about the importance of public lands. This can be through social media, conversations with friends and family, or even organizing events or activities that highlight the value of public lands.

FAQ: What are Public Lands?

Here are some common questions about public lands and their answers. If your question is not addressed, leave a comment, and I will get back to you with an answer and more information as soon as possible.

Q: What is the meaning of public land?

A: Public lands are lands that are held and administered by the government, whether it be federal, state, or local. They are maintained for the use and enjoyment of the public, and serve a variety of purposes including conservation, recreation, and resource extraction.

A: Public lands in the United States are owned by the federal, state, or local governments. The federal government is the largest landowner, with the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service being the major federal land management agencies.

A: Yes, lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) are a type of public land. The BLM manages over 245 million acres of public land for multiple uses, including recreation, conservation, and resource extraction.

A: Public lands serve a variety of purposes. They provide opportunities for recreation, protect natural and cultural resources, contribute to scientific research, and offer habitats for diverse wildlife. Some public lands also provide resources for economic activities like logging, mining, and grazing.

A: Western states, including Alaska, Nevada, Utah, and Idaho, have a significant portion of their land area designated as public land.

A: Approximately 28% of the land area in the United States is public land.

A: No, not all public lands are federal. Public lands can be owned and managed by federal, state, or local governments.

A: Both BLM (Bureau of Land Management) and USFS (U.S. Forest Service) lands are types of public lands managed for multiple uses. However, BLM lands are typically located in the Western U.S. and are used for a wider variety of purposes, including grazing, mining, and recreation. USFS lands, on the other hand, are primarily forested lands used for timber harvesting, grazing, and recreation.

A: The four major public land management agencies in the United States are the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), U.S. Forest Service (USFS), U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS), and National Park Service (NPS).

What Are Public Lands? Now You Know!

Public lands are an essential part of our nation’s heritage, providing countless recreational opportunities, preserving important historical and cultural sites, and serving as a source of natural resources. They also play a crucial role in scientific research, ecosystem conservation, and climate change mitigation. Understanding and appreciating these lands is the first step towards ensuring their protection for future generations.

Additional Resources

If you want to learn more about public lands, here are some additional resources:

  • Leave No Trace Center
  • U.S. Forest Service
  • Bureau of Land Management
  • National Park Service
  • U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
  • U.S. Department of the Interior
  • Public Lands Explained

Alex Derr, Founder of The Next Summit

Alex Derr is an Eagle Scout, climber, and environmental policy expert located in Denver, Colorado. He created The Next Summit to help others stay safe exploring the mountains and advocate to preserve the peaks for the future. Follow him on Linkedin or Twitter or click here to contact him.

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Hi, I'm Alex!

In 2018, I watched in disbelief as dozens of people hiked into a storm on Longs Peak, unaware of the extreme danger. Soon after, I started The Next Summit to educate and empower the public to safely and responsibly explore America's mountains.

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