What Are Public Lands?

From national trails to scenic rivers and more, the US federal government owns some 640 million acres of land.

CC BY 2.0. Bureau of Land Management / Flickr

What are public lands? Well, the optimistic answer is the one supplied by Woody Guthrie:

"This land is your land, this land is my land
From the California to the New York island
From the Redwood Forest, to the gulf stream waters
This land was made for you and me"

But we are a culture that feels a need to own things – so it's not that simple. That the private sector has the right to own land that was under the stewardship of people long before Europeans got here doesn't make much sense. But that's another story ... and this one is about public lands, which sounds slightly better. Land for all.

The federal government owns around 640 million acres of land in the United States, which equates to 28 percent of the country's 2.27 billion acres. As of 2015, 610.1 million acres of public land were administered by the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, or U.S. Forest Service. All of those agencies are part of the U.S. Department of the Interior, except the Forest Service, which belongs to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Those millions of acres come in all shapes and sizes, from glorious national parks to secret scenic rivers. And since this is, ostensibly, the public's land ... it seems worthwhile to know what it all entails.

Note: This will not be a discussion of the very complicated politics about how public lands can be used. This is, rather, a straightforward explanation of what type of properties belong to the public.

National Parks

Yellowstone National Park was signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1872 – it was the first national park in the United States. Now we have 59 big national parks, and more than 400 national parks in total.

Created by Congress, national parks are usually large swaths of land that protect a variety of resources, including natural and historic features. They are managed by the National Park Service and the goal is to keep landscapes protected while offering recreation opportunities.

There are also national preserves and other names that fall into the category – the National Park System has 28 different types of designations, but they’re all considered national parks.

National Forests

You might think that a national forest would mean that the land is off-limits to industry, but that is not the case. The Forest Service oversees 154 national forests, all under a "multiple use concept," meaning they are open to managed use for lumber, grazing, minerals, and recreation. National forests are often situated near national parks, which provide a good protective buffer zone.

National Wildlife Refuges

In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt established Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge – the first wildlife refuge in the country. Now the Refuge System includes more than 560 sites, managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service with the aim of conserving our fish, wildlife and plants. Every state and U.S. territory has at least one; and there is at least one within an hour's drive of most major cities. Wildlife refuges see more than 47 million visitors each year, with recreation offerings like hiking, canoeing, kayaking, wildlife viewing, hunting, fishing and more.

National Conservation Areas

National conservation areas are designated by Congress and offer scientific, cultural, historical and recreational features – examples include California's Lost Coast, King Range National Conservation Area, and Utah's Red Cliffs National Conservation Area. They are one of the parts of the Bureau of Land Management's National Conservation Lands, which include 873 federally recognized areas, comprising some 32 million acres, mostly in the western states.

National Monuments

Established in 1906, national monuments are created to protect a specific natural, cultural or historic feature. The Grand Canyon, Badlands and Zion all started off as national monuments before graduating to national parks. These areas come in a variety of categories, and thus can be managed by any of seven different agencies, both individually or jointly.


Thank heavens for wilderness areas – pristine places generally untamed by humans. In the middle of the last century, the Wilderness Act of 1964 was established to allow Congress the ability to crate wilderness areas to ensure that the country's wild areas stay wild. These areas can be part of national parks, national wildlife refuges, national forests or public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management. We have roughly 680 wilderness areas, encompassing more than 106 million acres in 44 states. Long may they remain untamed.

National Historic Sites

In addition to the splendid national park landscapes that the National Park Service oversees, they also manage places of historical significance. These locations commemorate important people, events and activities in the history of the U.S., places like Lincoln's home or where the Constitution was written.

National Memorials

These are sites that pay homage to a specific person or tragic event, like the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument and Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

National Battlefields

National battlefields come in a variety of designations: national military park, national battlefield park, national battlefield site and national battlefield, but they all serve the same purpose of preserving this aspect of the country's history.

National Recreation Areas

There are 12 national recreation areas that are based on water-based recreation – like Lake Mead and the Delaware Water Gap. There is another five that are more like urban parks and are located near cities, these areas, like the Santa Monica Mountains, preserve open space and act as important natural areas for recreation.

Wild and Scenic Rivers

The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968 provides for various levels of protection classification for more than 200 rivers in 35 states and Puerto Rico – the goal? To preserve rivers and the land surrounding them in their natural state. Wild and scenic rivers must be free-flowing streams that haven't been dammed or altered in any fashion.

National Seashores and National Lakeshores

There are 10 protected national seashores, which obviously mean they are on the country's three coasts: The Atlantic, Gulf and Pacific. The four current national lakeshores are all on the Great Lakes.

National Trails

There are three types of national trails: Scenic, hiking, and recreation – established in 1968 when an act of Congress authorized the National Trails System Act. There are 11 national scenic trails – like the famous Appalachian National Scenic Trail. With a minimum requirement of 100 miles in length, the scenic trails alone comprise 18,753 miles of hiking potential. National historic trails are ones like the Pony Express National Historic Trail, which travels through eight states in homage to the American West.

Most of this information has come from the Department of the Interior archives, where you can get further information.