A Guide To Understanding America’s Public Lands
Stretching from sea to shining sea, America’s public lands let us dream big…camp red rock country miles from the nearest road, scale a 3,000-foot granite monolith, kayak a secluded stream, or uncover hints of a past civilization. We drive to these spectacular destinations in vehicles powered by oil drilling on public land and return to homes built of its timber. Many different designations are given to the 640 million acres of federal public land, allowing for countless uses. Dreamland Safari Tours encounters several of those land types on tour: National Park, National Monument, Wilderness Area, BLM land, and National Forest. Visitors often ask us, “What’s the difference?” We’ll try to explain.
What is public land?
Public land is land that belongs to all of us. This is land each American owns and shares with our fellow citizens. Of course, any time two or more people share something, there will be conflicting opinions on how that resource should be used. Voters elect officials who make land-use decisions and appoint and hire others to help manage our land. There is additional public land managed by state and local authorities, such as your local city park, but we won’t touch on those.
Four government agencies are charged with almost all of the federal land management:
- Bureau of Land Management oversees 248 million acres, which is 10.5% of all the land in the U.S.
- The U.S. Forest Service manages 193 million acres or 8.5% of American land.
- U.S Fish and Wildlife handles 89 million acres, which is 3.9% of the U.S.
- The National Park Service encompasses 84 million acres or 3.7% of the country.
How did the U.S. government end up with so much land? A brief summary: Indian nations ceded millions of acres of land to the newly established federal government in the 1700s. Through conquest, treaty settlements, and purchases, the U.S. also gained land from Mexico, Canada, Russia, Spain, England, and France. The original public domain lands totaled 1.8 billion acres, according to publicland.org. Two-thirds of this land was transferred to individuals (such as homesteaders), corporations (like railroads), and states. Other large areas were set aside for national parks, monuments, forests, and reservations for Native American tribes.
Most federal land is found in the western states. Almost 85% of Nevada is comprised of federal public land and 65% of Utah is the same. That’s 34 million acres of federal public land just here in Utah! No wonder we love where we live.
Designations are assigned to every part of the land to signify the use objective: How should we utilize this land? The distinction between designations gets pretty complicated, but the basic question that lies behind each is, “What exactly are we trying to protect?” The government agency charged with the management of that land then sets policies to achieve the objective.
It takes an act of Congress to designate a National Park, and there are currently 62. National Parks are generally large, diverse areas that preserve land with scenic, recreational or educational value. Strict protections are in place to keep national parks “unimpaired for future generations.” There is no hunting, grazing, or mineral extraction allowed in a national park. Rules for visitors vary between parks and among different areas within a park. When visiting a National Park, take time to understand the rules and follow them. Expect regulations, required permits, or all-out bans on activities such as camping, fires, dogs, parking, boats, hiking off trail, rock gathering, using ropes and technical gear, etc. Expect lots of rules aimed to control user behavior, including a ban on drones. Nearly 4.5 million visitors came to Zion National Park in 2019. In our opinion, the National Park Service does an outstanding job of conserving the land while also making it accessible and easy to enjoy.
The accessibility is the main reason Dreamland Safari tours offers few national park trips. Our guests often visit Zion, Bryce Canyon, and Grand Canyon National Parks where they find paved roads, marked trails, easy-to-follow maps, informative signs, and helpful rangers (unless they’re visiting backcountry areas). These parks are truly a national treasure, but you don’t need our help to visit them. Dreamland Safari Tours is permitted to operate within Grand Canyon National Park, where we visit a remote viewpoint called Toroweap. It’s a 61-mile off-pavement trek each way. Now that sounds like us.
A National Monument can be designated by a U.S. President or Congress, though it seems most have been signed into law by a President. Monuments preserve areas of cultural, historic, or scientific value. National Monuments can be governed by the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, or another agency.
Selected characteristics for a National Monument are:
- Sites include both natural areas and areas of cultural, historical, and archaeological significance.
- Presidentially proclaimed monuments must be on federal lands that contain historical landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures of other objects of historic or scientific interest. The President is to reserve “the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects to be protected.”
- Allowed uses in a National Monument vary according to the establishing law or proclamation, and the management framework of the administering agency.
In general, national monuments tend to be smaller than national parks, though this is not always the case. There also tends to be more variation among national monuments in terms of what they are trying to preserve: Whether it be a Native American ruin, a battleground, or dinosaur fossils. Just for comparison, here are two nearby national monuments with which we are familiar. The 40-acre Pipe Spring National Monument preserves the history of the Kaibab Paiutes and early settlers to the Arizona Strip. Managed by the National Park Service, visitors are greeted by knowledgeable rangers, informational signs, interpretive programs, a visitor center, gift shop, amenities such as flushing toilets and pavement. Then there’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, a remote expanse of 1 million acres, few signs, fewer rangers, and no paved roads that are overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. President Bill Clinton designated Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in 1996 to protect a long list of historical, paleontological, archaeological, and natural sites. We love both nearby monuments but in many ways, they feel worlds apart.
Rules vary by the monument. The monuments in which we spend most of our time offer more freedom for activities like camping, campfires and hiking off-trail, and drone flying than National Parks do. National Monuments most commonly visited on a Dreamland tour are Vermilion Cliffs National Monument (280,000 acres, designated by Bill Clinton in 2000 — and the backdrop to our popular White Pocket tour), Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (1 million acres designated by Clinton in 1996), and Grand Canyon Parashant (1 million acres, designated by Bill Clinton in 2000) which we pass through on the way to Toroweap / Tuweep.
Like a National Park, it takes an act of Congress to designate a Wilderness Area. They are administered by the National Park Service, Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, or Bureau of Land Management. Wilderness receives the government’s highest level of land protection of any federal wildland. Since the Wilderness Act passed in 1964, 111 million acres of federal land have been declared official wilderness. Characteristics include:
- Wilderness areas are partly defined as areas of undeveloped federal lands “Where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself a visitor does not remain”
- Areas are subject to management provisions of the administering agency
- Commercial activities, motorized access, and human infrastructure, among other activities, generally are prohibited in designated wilderness areas, unless specifically allowed by statute. Hunting and fishing may be allowed.
The most famous Wilderness Areas Dreamland Safari Tours visits are North and South Coyote Buttes, part of the 112,500-acre Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness. Permits are required simply to enter the Coyote Buttes. North Coyote Buttes is commonly known as the Wave, and only a handful of permits are awarded by lottery for each area on a given day. Campfires, camping, flying drones, and rockhounding are a few activities that are prohibited in the Coyote Buttes. There are no roads or infrastructure of any kind in the wilderness. Some other Wilderness Areas do allow camping and don’t require a permit to enter, but many strict rules keep the land pristine and provide a true wilderness experience for those who venture into it.
Wilderness Study Areas
Most BLM wilderness study areas are lands the Bureau of Land Management has identified and reviewed for potential wilderness destinations. These lands are managed as if they were wilderness until Congress either designates them as wilderness or releases them. Some BLM Wilderness Study Areas may have been designated by statute. Forest Service and Fish and Wildlife Service Wilderness Study Areas have been designated primarily by individual statues. There are a lot of Wilderness Study Areas in southern Utah; one example of many is Yellow Rock, which we visit on our Grand Staircase Hiker’s Dream tour.
General public land administered by the Bureau of Land Management is designated by Congress. Dreamland visits BLM land managed by the Kanab Field office on our Peekaboo Canyon tour.
- The National System of Public Lands includes grasslands, forests, high mountains, arctic tundra, and deserts. These are largely lands reserved from the public domain, but BLM has the authority to acquire land. Some of the lands in this system have special designations.
- BLM generally manages lands for sustained yields of multiple uses, including recreation, grazing, timber, watershed, wildlife and fish habitat, and conservation.
National Forest can be only designated by Congress, though the President and the Secretary of Agriculture have authority to modify existing units. The land is governed by the Forest Service under the U.S. Department of Agriculture, unlike National Parks and Monuments, which fall under the Department of the Interior. The system’s mission is to provide a variety of uses and values, including timber production, watershed management, livestock grazing, energy and mineral development, outdoor recreation, fish and wildlife habitat management, and wilderness – without impairing the land’s productivity. It’s often called the “land of many uses.” While we don’t tour any National Forests per se, we travel through the Kaibab National Forest on our way to Vermilion Cliffs National Monument and our remote Marble Canyon Photography tour also dips into national forest land when we visit Triple Alcoves, a spectacular viewpoint with red rock cliffs soaring high above the mighty Colorado River. Back to the Kaibab National Forest though: just the North Kaibab ranger district has 1,000 square miles and 1,500 miles of roads, mostly unpaved. Can you imagine our guides spending their days off in this forest? We can too.