Public Lands: An Overview  

America’s public lands are the envy of the world and were created for the enjoyment of all–no matter their race, age, gender, religion or socioeconomic status. Public Lands are a uniquely American idea that is rooted in deep sense of egalitarianism that arose in part as a response to some European models that limited land access and ownership only to the wealthy and powerful. The American public holds these lands in trust. While each of us may use America’s public lands differently, our public lands speak to a rich and diverse tapestry of history, culture, and sacred traditions that are deeply woven into the collective American experience. Our network of public lands are quintessential to American heritage as they provide us all with unparalleled yet affordable recreation opportunities, large connected landscapes and important wildlife habitats, abundant natural resources, and a chance to experience the outdoors which has helped define us as a nation.

What are Public Lands and How Much Public Land is there in the U.S.?

In the United States there is 610 million acres of federal public lands that are held in trust for all Americans and the goal is to manage these lands for the long-term health of both the land and citizens. With 610 million acres, there is enough federal public land in the U.S. to create 18 states the size of Arizona or 17 the size of Illinois. Public lands are incredibly important to the western landscape and identity where between 25 to 80 percent of the land in most western states is federal public lands.

You can think of federal public land as land you own (and share with everyone else in the U.S.). Many federal agencies manage public lands for multiple uses, from recreation and sporting opportunities to timber and energy production, but in some form or another every American has a say in how these places get used. While in the broadest sense some local and state lands may be open to and used by the public, most frequently the term “public lands” refers to federal public lands that are held in trust and managed for the American people. When it comes to states and localities it becomes harder to generalize “public lands” since for some lands there’s no requirement to involve citizens in public land management decisions.

Who Manages Public Lands?

There are four major federal agencies that manage the 610 million acres of public land held by the U.S. government:

  • Bureau of Land Management (BLM): 248 million acres or 10.5 percent of all land in the country
  • U.S. Forest Service (USFS): 193 million acres or 8.5 percent of the country
  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS): 89 million acres or 3.9 percent of the country
  • National Park Service (NPS): 84 million acres or 3.7 percent of the country

Each of the federal agencies has different objectives and policies for how they manage the land.

What are the Most Common Public Lands?

Our public lands consist of a vast array of national parks, national monuments, forests, grasslands, wildlife refuges, wild rivers and scenic waterways, and more. These are the public lands you are most likely to encounter and enjoy:

  • National Parks–Can only be created by an act of Congress and are often considered the crown jewel of the public lands system as they contain some of the most iconic public lands like Yosemite, Glacier, Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Rocky Mountain and Everglades National Parks. There are over 400 units within the national park system and these lands are protected for their natural, historical and cultural resources and managed by the national park service.

  • National Monuments–There are 155 national monuments that have been designated by the president or Congress for specific natural, cultural or historic features. Places like Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming, Utah’s Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, and New Mexico’s Rio Grande del Norte may come to mind. Some places — like the Grand Canyon, Badlands and Zion — were first protected as national monuments before later becoming national parks.National Monuments may be managed by a variety of federal agencies.
  • National Forests: There are 154 national forests and 20 grasslands managed by the USFS with a multiple use concept—so in addition to recreation, lumber, grazing and mineral extraction are allowed. Eighty-four million people use more than 158,000 miles of Forest Service trails each year.
  • National Wildlife Refuge–The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service manages wildlife refuges to conserve America’s fish, wildlife and plants. Created in 1903 when President Teddy Roosevelt established Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. The Refuge System has grown to more than 560 sites, with at least one wildlife refuge in every state and U.S. territory. While refuges safeguard wildlife populations and their habitats many also provide a wealth of recreation opportunities, including hiking, kayaking, wildlife viewing, hunting, fishing and more! National Wildlife Refuges see more than 47 million visits from the public each year
  • National conservation land: Designated by Congress, around 34 million acres have been set aside as national conservation areas for scientific, cultural, historical and recreational purposes. They are managed by the BLM.
  • Wilderness--Wilderness areas are places untamed by humans and  are lands unspoiled by roads or other development that provide outstanding opportunities for solitude. The Wilderness Act of 1964 allows Congress to designate wilderness areas to ensure that America’s pristine wild lands will not disappear. Wilderness areas can be part of national parks, national wildlife refuges, national forests or public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management. There are nearly 700 wilderness areas in the U.S.

What is Multiple Use of Public Lands?

Our public lands are not only vital to our nation’s identity, history, and values, but they are also used in multiple ways by the public. For example., our public lands are often places where millions of Americans recreate annually and generate billions of dollars of revenue from outdoor recreation, hunting and fishing, logging, ranching, and other economic activities. These lands offer key habitat and sanctuaries for all kinds of species, from bison to deer to trout, as well as provide essential ecosystem services such as clean air and clean water for local communities. America’s public lands also often contain important historical, sacred and archaeological sites that are important to both local communities as well as the broader identify and narrative of our nation.

Get Involved: With these major threats facing America’s public lands, water and wildlife, it is important that spiritual leaders and communities get involved in protecting our public lands. Lend your voice and advocate for our public lands by helping elected officials and federal agencies find the balance needed to manage and support these important landscapes through responsible stewardship.