The guide for travelers to America’s federal lands

The United States has a vast array of wild spaces rich in resources, from the Red Sandstone Formations of Utah to Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. Since 1905, when the U.S. Forest Service was founded, the government has been protecting its public lands for over 100 years. To better protect these resources for future generations, the U.S. has added many designations. This has led to a maze of confusing titles and acronyms that can confuse travelers. Although rules may vary from one site to the next, it is a good idea to know where you can camp or hunt or cut your holiday tree. These activities may be allowed on some lands. On others, they can lead to a fine or imprisonment. Understanding the people who manage federal lands is the first step in understanding them. Four agencies manage 95% of the natural spaces that are open to the public: the National Parks Service (Bureau of Land Management), the U.S. Forest Service, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Fish and Wildlife Service. These are the differences between these agencies, what they do and how it affects travelers.

The National Parks System

Who is responsible for managing the land? The 1916 creation of the National Parks Service (NPS) has given rise to a dual mission. Its purpose is to protect unique resources while making them available for public enjoyment and use. NPS land generally has a higher protection level than other agencies.

What is it? It includes more than just the 63 National Parks. These are vast areas of outstanding natural resources and exceptional natural features. It also includes National Preserves (also known as National Seashores) that function in the same way as national parks. The NPS also monitors historical areas. These include National Historic Sites. They are places that have been designated as such, including homes and schools (like Little Rock Central High School). National Historical Parks protect larger areas that are related to people or events in American history, such as Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia which contains Independence Hall and Liberty Bell. The National Battlefield Parks/Sites, National Military Parks, and National Memorials honor military history. National Memorials are memorials to people and events.

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National Wildlife Refuge

Who is responsible for it? The U.S. The main mission of the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), is to conserve wild habitats. This includes protecting endangered species and managing migratory bird populations, as well as enforcing wildlife laws.

What is it? It encompasses all FWS-managed lands. You can find refuges that are open for visitors here. These include Waterfowl Production Areas which are small wetlands and grassland habitats that migratory birds use; Wildlife Coordination Areas which concentrate on wildlife conservation; National Fish Hatcheries which produce and distribute fish for conservation or recreation. Both the Ankeny National Wildlife Refuge and Bears Bluff National Fish Hatchery are open to visitors.

National System of Public Lands

Who is responsible for it? 12 percent of the land in the United States is managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). This includes forests, mountains, grasslands, and arctic tundra. It is responsible for sustainable energy, timber harvesting, and water use.

What is it? These lands may also contain Areas of Critical Environmental Concern that require special management attention in order to preserve important historical, cultural, or scenic values, as well as to protect life safety and security from natural hazards.

What other information do travelers need?

What happens if more than one agency manages a place? When two or more agencies manage a particular area, it can make decisions about how to use the land even more difficult. National Monuments are areas that include both natural areas and areas of historical, cultural, or archeological importance. Often, more than one entity manages them. For example, at Bears Ears National Monument visitors will see a map showing a section of land owned by BLM and a corner by FS. There are also scattered pieces of state and private property throughout.

Remember: It doesn’t matter who owns the land. You must be aware of the impact you have on the ecosystem by properly disposing of waste, leaving what you find, respecting wildlife, and preserving it.


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