Of the 2.27 billion acres of total land mass in the United States, the federal government manages about 640 million acres, predominantly concentrated in 12 Western states including Alaska. By comparison, state- and locally managed lands total about 217 million acres. The questions of who’s in charge and what’s allowed on those lands aren’t easy to answer. As is often the case with the U.S. government, policies and details are nuanced, to say the least. Here’s our attempt to boil it down.

By Scott Willoughby  July 3, 2018


Not all public land is federally managed, and not all federally managed land is accessible to the public. For example, military bases are on federally managed land, but they are not open to the public.

States (along with cities and counties) also manage lands that are considered part of the public domain. But there’s a difference. Generally speaking, states are not required to manage lands with a multiple-use mandate like most federal land agencies.

All states have some lands under state management, such as state parks, state wildlife management areas and state forests, but state lands are not owned by state residents in the same way that public lands are. In the West, states entering the union also received federal public land as trust lands designated for specific beneficiaries, like schools and hospitals. Those trust lands are managed to provide revenue to the designated beneficiaries, often prioritizing development (and disposal) and restricting public access to a variety of uses, including recreation. Where access is available, fees are often required.



Four major federal agencies administer 610 million acres of that land for many purposes, primarily related to recreation and to the development and preservation of natural resources.

The majority of America’s public lands fall under the management of the Interior Department, which oversees the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the National Park Service (NPS). The secretary of the Interior Department, currently Ryan Zinke, is appointed by the president.

  • Bureau of Land Management (BLM)—248 million acres (10.5% of the United States)
    Totaling nearly one-tenth of the landmass of the nation, BLM lands comprise a large chunk of the public domain. The agency’s multiple-use mission includes everything from recreation, wildlife conservation and preservation of natural and cultural resources to livestock grazing, logging and energy and mineral development. More than 99 percent of BLM-administered lands are available for recreational use with no fees, and since 2000, the BLM has become the lead agency in land conservation in the country. The BLM manages more wildlife habitat than any other federal agency, including 25 national monuments, 12 national conservation areas and 8.8 million Wilderness acres.BLM also oversees the National Landscape Conservation System, about 36 million acres managed to conserve special features for the benefit of current and future generations. Designated by Congress and the president, national conservation lands include 16 National Conservation Areas (NCAs) and five similarly designated lands in 10 states. General criteria for designation is exceptional natural, cultural, historical or recreational value. Similar designations include Cooperative Management and Protection Areas, outstanding natural areas and forest reserves.


  • National Park Service (NPS)—80 million acres (3.5% of United States)
    Since President Theodore Roosevelt designated Yellowstone National Park as America’s first public lands in 1872, the NPS has grown to include 417 park units nationwide. America’s 58 strictly regulated national parks are designed to preserve our natural, historical and cultural resources, typically forbidding consumptive uses such as mining and hunting. Some national monuments are also administered by the NPS, along the majority (18) of America’s national recreation areas, which are managed to provide outdoor recreation for large numbers of people. The agency was formally created when Congress passed the National Park Service Organic Act in 1916 to ensure consistent management of all national parks.






  • United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS)—89 million acres (3.9% of United States)
    The FWS manages the 150-million-acre National Wildlife Refuge System of more than 560 national wildlife refuges and thousands of small wetlands and special management areas set aside to conserve America’s fish, wildlife and plants. With some of the oldest programs in the world dedicated to natural resource conservation, the FWS traces its roots back to 1871. The agency is responsible for enforcing wildlife laws, protecting endangered species, managing migratory birds, restoring nationally significant fisheries, conserving and restoring wetlands and other wildlife habitat, helping foreign governments with their international conservation efforts and distributing money raised through excise taxes on fishing and hunting equipment to state fish and wildlife agencies.About a third of America’s public lands fall under the purview of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which oversees the U.S. Forest Service, the only major national land agency that’s outside of the Department of the Interior. The secretary of Agriculture, currently Sonny Perdue, is appointed by the president.



  • U.S. Forest Service (USFS)—193 million acres (8.5% of United States) The USFS administers the nation’s 154 national forests and 20 national grasslands, encompassingabout 193 million acres and accounting for about 25 percent of federally managed public lands. There are nine Forest Service regions spanning the nation, each encompassing a broad geographic area. With a multiple-use mission to balance resource extraction, resource protection and recreation, the agency is responsible for 59 million acres of roadless areas; 14,077 recreation sites; 133,346 miles of trails; 374,883 miles of roads and the harvest of 1.5 billion trees per year.



What’s the difference between a national park, a national forest and a national monument? What activities can and can’t you do on each? And who is responsible for maintaining those lands and enforcing the rules? The simple answer: It’s complicated. The National Park System, for example, has 28 sub-designations. The rules that govern each designation category can vary. In general, though, designations typically confer a range of protections and restrictions on how, when, by whom and for what purpose the land can be used and accessed.

  • Wilderness (Managed by: BLM, NPS, USFS, USFWS)
    The National Wilderness Preservation System (NWPS) was created by the Wilderness Act of 1964 and grants the highest level of protection for federally managed public lands. About 110 million acres have been designated by Congress (and only Congress) as Wilderness areas, “where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Wilderness areas can be part of national parks, national wildlife refuges and national forests. They are subject to specific management restrictions limiting activities to non-mechanical recreation, scientific research and other non-invasive activities. Just about anything that is lawful activity and does not harm the Wilderness or require a motorized vehicle is permitted, including hiking, camping, horseback riding, hunting, fishing, photography and bird-watching.
  • Wilderness Study Area (Managed by: BLM, USFS)
    Wilderness study areas (WSAs) contain undeveloped federal public lands that meet the criteria of the Wilderness Act and are managed to preserve their natural condition. Although many WSAs are managed the same way as Wilderness areas, WSAs are not included in the National Wilderness Preservation System until designated by Congress.
  • National Park (Managed by: NPS)
    Only Congress can establish a national park “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” There are currently 59 designated national parks operated by the National Park Service. Hundreds of other units are part of the National Park System, although lacking formal designation as national parks.
  • National Monument (Managed by: NPS, BLM, USFS, USFWS)
    Monuments are similar to national parks but can be created either by Congress or by proclamationof the president through the Antiquities Act of 1906. National monuments are managed by a variety of federal agencies including the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management. President Theodore Roosevelt used the Antiquities Act to declare Devils Tower in Wyoming as the first U.S. national monument in 1906, and the act has since been used by 16 presidents to establish monuments, many of which Congress eventually designated as national parks.
  • National Conservation Area (Managed by: BLM)
    These BLM lands are designated for protection under the National Landscape Conservation System. Restrictions vary between conservation areas, but typically they are not leased or sold under mining laws, and motorized use on them is restricted. There are 16 National Conservation Areas spanning about 3.8 million acres in the United States.
  • National Recreation Area (Managed by: BLM, NPS, USFS)
    Typically managed by the National Park Service, national recreation areas are public lands often centered on large bodies of water with an emphasis on water-based recreation for large numbers of people.
  • National Wild and Scenic Rivers (Managed by: BLM, NPS, USFS)
    The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968 preserves certain rivers with outstanding natural, cultural and recreational values in a free-flowing condition for the enjoyment of present and future generations. Rivers may be designated by Congress or, if certain requirements are met, the secretary of the Interior. Rivers are classified as wild, scenic or recreational and administered with the goal of protecting and enhancing those values. Each river is administered by either a federal or state agency. This is considered the highest level of protection for rivers in the United States.