Understanding Public Lands

A Breakdown Of Federal Land, State Land + More

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What Are "Public Lands"?

The term public lands seems to occupy the spotlight lately, from political campaigns to social media activists to documentary films. Yet many people still don’t understand exactly what public lands are. Public lands are properties that the federal government holds in public trust and manages on behalf of its citizens. The federal government originally acquired these lands through treaties, purchases, and often the forced removal of its indigenous inhabitants. Today, four federal government agencies administer these lands: the National Park Service (NPS), the United States Forest Service (USFS), the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Public lands administered by the NPS include national parks, national monuments, national historic parks, and 16 other types of designated sites. The USFS administers our national forests and grasslands, nine national monuments, wild and scenic rivers, and sites with multiple other designations. The BLM administers 10 percent of all land in the United States, and sites under its administration include its National Conservation Lands system, comprising wilderness areas, wilderness study areas, national monuments, national conservation areas, historic trails, and wild and scenic rivers. The USFWS administers national wildlife refuges and fish hatcheries. All four agencies administer federally designated wilderness areas, a designation that confers the most protection of all federal land designations.  

If you’re ready to get out and play on your public lands and less interested in knowing the ins and outs of federal land management agencies, skip ahead a few sections. Just keep one important thing in mind; as the USFS reminds us, “It’s all yours.” Public lands belong to every U.S. citizen. It’s your land, yours to explore, enjoy, and protect.

A Quick Note on the Verbage + Language

Remember the day after former President Trump’s executive order drastically reduced the area of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments? Patagonia, the outdoor gear and apparel retailer, changed its website’s homepage to a black screen that proclaimed in big, white letters, “The President Stole Your Land.” Such emotional appeals are common on both sides of public lands debates; conservationists want you to know that you “own” public land in the US, and those who advocate for turning over public land to the states call added protections for public land a “land grab.” 

In truth, terms like “stole,” “own,” and “land grab” do appeal to our emotions, but they don’t tell the whole story of public lands ownership and management. Do all US citizens “own” public lands? Consider that with proper permits and in appropriately zoned areas, I can build a house on land I own, but I cannot build a house wherever I want on public lands. Equally important to consider is the fact that when the federal government increases protection for federal land by changing its designation (to a national park or monument, for example), such an act couldn’t possibly be a land grab because the federal government is changing the designation on land it already owns. Perhaps the term belongs better describes our relationship to public lands; the lands belong to every citizen, and the federal government, through its four land management agencies, manages these lands on behalf of each of us.

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The 4 Federal Agencies That Manage Public Land

There is a lot of overlap in the types of federally designated land that the four federal agencies manage. For example, the Park Service, Forest Service, and BLM all manage some national monuments. So what’s the difference in the agencies? In a word, mission

The National Park Service’s mission is to conserve the scenery, natural and historic objects, and wildlife in the System units and to provide for the enjoyment of the scenery, natural and historic objects, and wildlife in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations. The mission of the Park Service is two-fold (and seemingly at odds with itself at times): to conserve and to provide for the enjoyment of park lands. 

The US Forest Service’s mission is to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations. Note that this mission is about forests and makes no mention of conservation or recreational objectives. 

The Bureau of Land Management’s mission is to manage public land for multiple uses (such as energy development, livestock grazing, mining, timber harvesting, and outdoor recreation) while conserving natural, historical, and cultural resources (such as wilderness areas, wild horse and wildlife habitat, artifacts, and dinosaur fossils). The BLM’s responsibility is to administer public lands “on the basis of multiple use and sustained yield” of resources. The BLM’s mission is all about multiple uses, both recreational and extractive in all its forms.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service is dedicated to the conservation, protection, and enhancement of fish, wildlife and plants, and their habitats. Note that this mission is all about wildlife conservation and does not mention recreation. 

Despite their different missions, the agencies manage some of the same types of land, though only the park service manages national parks, and only the Forest Service manages national forests. 

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What Is A "Wilderness Area"?

Federal public land designated as wilderness is the most protected of all federal land and has the most restrictions on its use. Wilderness areas are located on land managed by all four federal land management agencies. The Wilderness Act of 1964 created this designation, and this legislation includes this definition of wilderness:

“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

In wilderness areas, logging, oil and gas drilling, and motorized travel (including bicycles) are prohibited. The Wilderness Act states:

“Except as specifically provided for in this Act, and subject to existing private rights, there shall be no commercial enterprise and no permanent road within any wilderness area designated by this Act and except as necessary to meet minimum requirements for the administration of the area for the purpose of this Act (including measures required in emergencies involving the health and safety of persons within the area), there shall be no temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport, and no structure or installation within any such area.”

Consider the uniqueness of wilderness areas. Roads often crisscross our national parks, and massive parking lots and shuttle buses are a standard part of the experience in some parks. A maze of roads covers our national forests and BLM lands, and logging and mining companies and cattle ranchers use these roads to access their business operations. But federally designated wilderness allows no new roads, no motorized traffic, and no logging or mining. 

All four federal land management agencies manage wilderness areas. In Colorado, for example, the USFS manages the Indian Peaks Wilderness, located within the Roosevelt and Arapaho National Forests, straddling their boundary on the Continental Divide. This wilderness area is adjacent to Rocky Mountain National Park to the north. In Colorado’s Summit County, the USFS manages the Eagle’s Nest Wilderness within the White River National Forest. Colorado’s Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park contains a wilderness area within its boundary that is, of course, under NPS management. The park is adjacent to the Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area, which the BLM manages and also includes a wilderness area within its boundaries. The US Fish and Wildlife Service co-manages one wilderness area, the Mount Massive Wilderness, with the Forest Service because the USFWS manages the Leadville National Fish Hatchery, which is located partly within the wilderness area.

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What About Land Managed By The State?

State-owned lands can be accessible to the public and therefore are sometimes referred to as public lands. State-owned lands, however, aren’t technically public lands. While the US government owns and manages public lands on behalf of all citizens, states own state land. States can do what they want with land they own, like sell or lease it to generate revenue. Unlike the federal government, state governments are legally prohibited from operating at a deficit, and states often use their land to generate operating cash to balance their budgets. 

State-owned land open to the public for recreational purposes could more accurately be labeled publicly accessible land. Colorado is a state with abundant such land, and it’s divided into four types: state parks, state fishing units, state trust land, and state wildlife areas. Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) manages all four types of land, each for a slightly different purpose. 

  • State Parks—Colorado has 43 state parks totaling 200,000 acres. 
  • State Fishing Units—According to CPW, “There are 18 state fish units (SFUs) around Colorado that offer limited public access. SFUs include fish hatcheries like Durango and rearing operations like Chalk Cliffs. Although the primary purpose of a SFU is the hatching and rearing of stockable fish, SFUs do allow self-guided tours and a few offer limited wildlife recreation.”
  • State Trust Land—Colorado’s State Land Board (SLB), an agency within the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, manages state trust land for the purpose of generating revenue to fund state institutions, primarily K-12 education. Though the activities taking place on the land often preclude public access, the SLB has leased 770,000 acres of state trust land to CPW, land in the SLB’s Public Access Program. This land is open to the public on a limited basis for “wildlife-related uses:” hunting, fishing, and wildlife viewing.
  • State Wildlife Areas—CPW manages 769,000 acres of state wildlife areas across 348 properties. CPW manages these lands for wildlife habitat, and the lands are open to wildlife-related uses: again, hunting, fishing, and wildlife viewing.

What About The Other Publicly Accessible Lands?

Yes! County and municipal governments across the country and especially in Colorado manage open spaces that are open to the public for recreation. Just remember, these county- and city-owned lands may be publicly accessible, but like state land, they aren’t public lands, technically speaking, in the same way as federal public lands. For example, Colorado’s Boulder County manages over 100,000 acres of open space, and neighboring Jefferson County manages 56,000 acres of open space.

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What Can You Do On Public Lands?

Regulations as to what is and is not allowed on different types of public land vary. But in general, there are some consistent regulations, outlined in the table below.

*Because BLM land varies widely in designation, regulations depend on what type of BLM site you’re visiting. Always check with the BLM to find out the regulations for a specific site. See contact info below. 

*Everyone age 18 or older MUST have a valid Colorado hunting or fishing license to be on ANY PART of a Colorado state wildlife area or state trust land. 

It’s important to keep in mind that there are abundant exceptions to the guidelines in the table above. For example, national monuments can be managed by the NPS, USFS, or BLM, and regulations in a national monument vary depending on the managing agency and even in different areas of the same monument. Ultimately, to determine regulations on your public lands, contact the managing agency (see below).

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How To Find Out About Public Land Near You

If you have a general destination in mind but aren’t sure who manages the land, an excellent starting point is the Protected Areas Database of the United States (PAD-US). This resource, which lives on the USGS website, is an interactive map that shows every protected area in the country, color-coded, from federally-managed land down to city parks. Clicking on an area brings up detailed information on each site, including which agency manages it, so you can figure out who to contact to learn about its regulations. Once you know which agency manages a site, use the following resources to learn more about what activities you can do there.

The National Park Service: On FindYourPark.com, you can search for parks (including all “units” that the NPS manages, including national monuments, national historic sites, etc.) by activity you’d like to do. The broad list of searchable activities even includes arts and culture, foraging, and scenic drives. You can also search for parks by location. For example, searching for camping in Colorado yields seven results. Or on the NPS homepage, you can search for national parks by state. Searching for Colorado parks yields 16 results—can you name the 16 NPS-managed units in Colorado? Clicking the “Basic Info” link next to any listing brings up a page of helpful info, like visitor center operating hours, weather, and directions, and the footer contains the park’s phone number. Additionally, on any park’s website, you can hover over “Plan Your Visit” in the menu bar and click “Things to Do” to see a list of the activities you can do in that park. 

The US Forest Service: The Forest Service’s interactive visitor map is a helpful tool for learning about national forests and the wilderness areas in them. Zoom in to see wilderness areas, shown in a darker green, within national forests. Zoom in more to locate trails, trailheads, campgrounds, and other amenities, and click on anything on the map to learn more. Click on a national forest to see a link to its homepage where you can find contact information for each national forest supervisor’s office in the left sidebar. Click “Alerts & Notices” in the left bar for up-to-date info on closures and fire restrictions.

The BLM: From this page on the BLM’s website, choose which state you’d like to explore in the right sidebar. Clicking on Colorado brings up a page with information by activity in the right sidebar, as well as maps and the BLM Colorado Recreation Guide. The guide includes info on each BLM site in the state and lists activities allowed in each site. The guide also includes contact info for each BLM field office. 

US Fish and Wildlife Service: Use the Find a Refuge interactive map on the USFWS website to see all national wildlife refuges. You can search by refuge name, zip code, or state, and clicking on a refuge shows all amenities available there and a link to the refuge’s website where you can find contact info. 

Colorado Parks and Wildlife: For detailed information on every CPW-administered site in Colorado, consult the 2020 Colorado State Recreation Lands pdf. This online publication lists contact information for every CPW area office. It also lists every CPW-administered site, organized by type, and each site’s listing includes directions, info on activities at each site, restrictions, and phone numbers for state parks. The “Places to Go” tab on the CPW website is a great place to find information on all of Colorado’s publicly accessible lands; you can also find a state park finder under this tab.

County and Municipal Public Land: Check with individual county and municipal government to find out what’s allowed in parks and open spaces. Regulations on activities, permits, and fees vary widely. Here are a just a few county and municipal governments in Colorado that manage large areas of open space: 

A Final Note Of Public Lands

By and large, public lands represent the wildest places remaining in this country. They also, in most cases, are the ancestral homes of this country’s indigenous people. They are the last vestiges of formerly intact ecosystems and refuges for some endangered species and the ecosystems that support them. They are hotly contested properties harboring resources that are convertible to cash, but at a much longer term and much higher cost. As you explore the opportunities for adventure on your public lands, take time to explore the history and significance of these vast sections of our country, too. These public lands are yours and mine to explore, enjoy, advocate for, protect, and understand in all their nuance.

Erica Rackley

Erica lives, works, and plays in the Mountain West. She is an avid trail runner and hiker who loves exploring new places on foot. An instructor and guide, she enjoys showing others the beauty of the special places she loves. Find her teaching a ski lesson, running longer than is probably sane, making (or, preferably, eating) good food, or learning a new plant name.

"The public lands are a public stock, which ought to be disposed of to the best advantage for the nation."

- James Monroe

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