Federal Public Land Types: What They Are and How to Protect Them
For those who have hiked along the Appalachian Trail—whether on just a section or the entirety of it between Georgia and Maine—the magic of this trail extends far beyond the place where you put your feet. “The trail itself is three feet wide, but the [AT] corridor is what provides the experience for the thru-hiking public,” explains Mark Zakutansky, AMC’s director of conservation policy engagement. “And that’s really what the Appalachian Trail is designed to provide: not a three-foot-wide trail bed, but a remote experience close to major Northeastern cities.”
As a unit of the National Park System, the trail benefits from high protection, but the corridor is subject to many threats. “We’ve seen death by a thousand cuts…with a range of development projects being proposed all across the Appalachian Trail and every single one of them degrading the trail experience by creating new clear cuts, temporary impacts, and permanent impacts,” says Zakutansky.
In other words, the value of the Appalachian Trail as a public resource is wholly reliant on the protected forest and wilderness around the trail. Projects that damage this surrounding area, like the clear cutting of trees to make room for oil pipelines or powerlines, threatens the inherent character and aesthetics of the trail that make it valuable and popular.
Understanding and advocating for the protection of this precious resource requires one to have a grasp on the designation of public lands in America—a complex and multifaceted beast. The Appalachian Trail provides a great example of the many ways in which these designations can take shape: The trail is a category of federal public land—a National Scenic Trail. But it passes through or overlaps with a variety of other types of public lands: 6 national parks, 8 national forests, 2 national wildlife refuges, 67 state-owned land areas, and more than 12 municipal watershed properties.
The way public lands in this country are designated affects not only how they can be used, but also how they are funded and protected. These designations may seem academic but understanding them can help outdoor enthusiasts be better stewards of these lands, which belong to all Americans.
Four agencies manage most of the 28 percent of U.S. land owned by the federal government: the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), and the National Park Service (NPS), all within the Department of the Interior, and the U.S. Forest Service, which is part of the Department of Agriculture. Within each of these managing agencies lie many categories of public lands that frequently overlap within one another.
“If you think it’s complex that there are national parks, forests, refuges, and then the Appalachian Trail and all these other public land units—it’s not even as simple as them sitting in silos,” says Zakutansky. One public land designation, like a federally-designated Wilderness Area for example, can be superimposed upon another designation, like a National Park. This layering requires various management agencies to work together to prioritize different conservation and land use goals.
Here are some of the most common types of federal public land you’re likely to encounter, and what you need to know to use them respectfully and to their fullest potential.
The National Park System
National parks are one of the most familiar designations of federal public lands. But few people realize that within the National Park System there are 19 different units. Here are some of the major types of units managed by the National Park Service (NPS):
- Historical Park
- Historic Site
- Recreation Area
Other specific units within this system are hyper-unique, like the White House, and there are also “affiliated areas” that preserve land outside the system but still use technical or financial support from the NPS.
Most national park designations can only be made by Congress, although the 1906 Antiquities Act authorizes the President to designate National Monuments, which also become part of the National Park System managed by the National Park Service. When land is designated as a national park, the intent is for that land to remain as pristine as possible for future generations while still maintaining recreation opportunities. All the units in the National Park System have equal legal standing, but the management approach may be different. For instance, hunting and mining are not permitted in the 62 national parks in America, but these activities may be permitted at National Preserves.
The National Trail System, established by an act of Congress in 1968, includes four designations: scenic, historic, and recreation trails, as well as connecting or side trails. National trails are often administered by the National Park Service, but other agencies—like Bureau of Land Management and USFS—administer some of these trails as well.
National Recreation Trails are easily accessible from urban areas; Historic Trails follow routes of historic significance; and Scenic Trails are the long-distance trails (100 miles or more) that many of us are most familiar with, like the Pacific Crest Trail, the Continental Divide Trail and, of course, the Appalachian Trail—350 miles of which are maintained by AMC trail crews and volunteers.
There are 154 National Forests across the U.S., all managed by USFS, which is part of the Department of Agriculture. The ultimate management goal of the USFS is ecological sustainability of national forests—maintaining healthy forests with fire hazard reduction, restoration, and even timber harvest, which can be crucial for certain species like the red-cockaded woodpecker. About 35 percent of forested land within national forests is used for timber harvest, while the remaining 65 percent is protected for Wilderness or recreation or can’t be harvested because of environmental risks.
AMC partners closely with the White Mountain National Forest on trail maintenance, public safety information and education, and alpine plant and air quality monitoring, and operates its hut system, the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center, and Camp Dodge Regional Trails Center under special use permits.
National Wildlife Refuges
President Theodore Roosevelt started the National Wildlife Refuge System in 1903 with the establishment of Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. This system, managed by the USFWS, now includes 560 sites, with at least one in every state.
The preservation of one or more native species is what drives all of the conservation, recreation, and resource management approaches on a wildlife refuge, and the public often reaps multiple-use benefits from these public lands. Cherry Valley National Wildlife Refuge, established in Pennsylvania in 2008, provides habitat for migratory birds and several other species (fitting into the goals of the National Wildlife Refuge System), while also protecting the Appalachian National Scenic Trail corridor, and providing fishing, hunting, and hiking opportunities for the public.
National Conservation Lands
National Conservation Lands are designated by Congress and managed by the BLM. This system includes about 33 million acres mostly in the West. About 30 percent of the nation’s minerals are located on National Conservation Lands.
The BLM’s approach to conservation on this system of lands balances conservation with other priorities like recreation, job promotion, and energy creation, including the management of the federal government’s onshore oil and gas program. As part of this responsibility, the BLM is facilitating the controversial lease sale of land for oil drilling in the Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, though the refuge is managed by the USFWS, which is also within the Department of Interior.
Wilderness areas are designated by Congress as part of the National Wilderness Preservation System. These areas exist to protect watersheds and wildlife habitats, maintain soil and water quality, and provide outdoor recreation opportunities, where possible.
These public lands can be a part of national parks, national wildlife refuges, national forests, or national conservation areas—meaning they can be managed by any of the four agencies. For example, six wilderness areas exist within the White Mountains National Forest. All are managed by the USFS, because they are located within (or layered upon) a national forest.
National Recreation Areas
As the name suggests, these public lands were designed to meet Americans’ outdoor recreation needs, with less of a focus on conservation and preservation of resources or their unique geology. These areas offer amazing opportunities for outdoor activity, without rising to the significance of a national park. Almost all national recreation areas (NRAs) are managed by the USFS and NPS.
The Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, home to AMC’s Mohican Outdoor Center, is one of 18 NRAs managed by the NPS. Established by Congress in 1965, the Delaware Water Gap NRA is also an example of overlapping public lands: it includes the Middle Delaware National Wild & Scenic River, the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, and the Minisink Archeological Site National Landmark.
National Wild and Scenic Rivers System
Congress passed the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act in 1968, which allows Congress or the Secretary of the Interior to designate rivers under three classifications: wild, recreational, and scenic. These rivers are “free-flowing and possess outstandingly remarkable scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic, cultural or other similar values,” according to the NPS website. The classification prohibits new dam construction and other disruptive activities. As of March 2019, less than half of a percent of America’s rivers were protected by this system.
Most rivers in this system are managed by one of the four federal agencies—NPS, USFS, BLM, or USFW—but others are managed by states, tribes, or a partnership between these entities.
Pay Attention to Public Lands
Most management plans for public lands are living documents that can be changed—these spaces are rarely protected in perpetuity. “A lot of our federal land units and even our local and state conservation lands have allowances for projects to be built across those lands, whether they’re pipelines or power lines, or inappropriate development, like putting golf courses on state parks that were never intended to have that type of facility on them,” says Zakutansky.
People and organizations can protect these lands from such development by paying close attention to what is proposed and holding management agencies accountable. AMC’s decade-long opposition to the ill-fated Northern Pass, an electricity transmission line that had been proposed in New Hampshire using rights of way cutting through the WMNF, is an example of advocacy that stems from a deep understanding of public land management and value.
Zakutansky also uses the example of two oil pipeline projects—the Mountain Valley and Atlantic Coast Pipelines—which needed to cross the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests and portions of the AT within these forests. Those invested in the pipeline found a way to alter the management plans of those forests in order for the projects to be built as proposed.
“That is unacceptable and a great injustice,” says Zakutansky. “When a management plan has been established for a public land unit, no company should be able to unilaterally make changes to that management plan because of their political influence.”
Advocates and nonprofit organizations took the USFS to court, reprimanded them for a failed process, and required the plans to be revisited, free of this political influence. The Atlantic Coast Pipeline has been canceled, and the Mountain Valley Pipeline is being reexamined.
“It’s important to understand the management of our public lands so that we can adequately protect the resource values that may be threatened or undermined by proposals like power lines, pipelines, resource extraction, and other non-conservation purposes,” says Zakutansky. “Outdoor enthusiasts are on the front lines of public lands as users, as advocates, as passionate supporters for ensuring that these places are established and set aside for future generations to enjoy. Their voices are extremely important in the conversation around the management of these resources.”