United States Federal Lands

Sep 16, 2008

I gave this post a vague title because the control of federal lands, such as National Parks, National Memorials and National Forests, is a surprisingly complicated issue. Tracts controlled by the federal government arise from disparate processes and are controlled by a number of different agencies including the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management and the United States Forest Service.


National Park Service

The most well-known federal land management agency is the National Park Service, housed under the Department of the Interior. The NPS was created in 1916 to organize management of the fledgling system of parks that began with the designation of Yellowstone National Park in 1862.

Bureau of Land Management

Originally created in 1812 as the General Land Office under the Department of the Treasury the Bureau of Land Management became part of the Department of the Interior after merging with the United States Grazing Service. Unlike the National Park Service, the BLM does not exist as an agency purely to protect the lands that it controls; the BLM issues permits for grazing, logging and mineral collection on many of the lands that they control.

U.S. Forest Service

The United States Forest Service is responsible for the management of National Grasslands and National Forests, controlling access to grazing, logging and mineral collection on lands under their control in addition to allowing recreation on these lands.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The United States Fish and Wildlife Service is the caretaker of the country’s National Wildlife Refuges and National Fish Hatcheries.


National Park

Beginning with the creation of Yellowstone in 1862 by congress National Parks are areas created by the legislative branch as natural preserves for recreational use by citizens of the country. National Parks do not allow for logging, mineral extraction or any other exploitation of the land. These lands are generally the most visited areas controlled by the federal government, receive the most funding for improvements to support visitors to the park and the most legislative attention. National Parks are all manage under the National Park Service.

National Monument

As a DC native, the term National Monument evokes thoughts of man made symbol commemorating a person or event. In terms of U.S. public lands, however, a national monument is a tract set aside by executive order without the approval of Congress. The land for a national monument may be that which the federal government already controls or something that is given to the government by an individual or state. The presidential power to create such lands was granted by the Antiquities Act of 1906 signed by Theodore Roosevelt and first used to protect Devil’s Tower in Northeastern Wyoming. The intent of the act is to allow the president to afford protection to natural resources of the United States more quickly than an act of Congress is capable. National monuments are intended to be less expansive than national parks, generally protecting a single natural feature. Management of national monuments falls to either the National Park Service or the Bureau of Land Management.

National Memorial

Now this is what should make me think of the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials in Washington. National Memorials are protected areas established by the legislative branch to commemorate a historic person or event. Though most National Memorials are administered by the National Park Service, some, such as the Benjamin Franklin National Memorial are overseen by another organization and considered an affiliated area of the NPS.

National Wilderness Area

A National Wilderness Area is defined within land that is already under federal control by the Wilderness Act of 1964 as an area in which commercial activities are forbidden and human activity is limited to non-motorized recreation and non-invasive activities such as scientific study. NWAs exist under the cooperative purview of all four land management agencies, the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

National Forest and Grassland

Managed by the Forest Service, a division of the Department of Agriculture, National Forests are unlike their protected brethren in that commercial exploitation of their resources is allowed with permits given for grazing, logging and mineral extraction. Lands administered by the Forest Service my also be licensed for commercial recreation such as ski resorts. National Forests are created by executive order as granted by the Land Revision Act of 1891 and National Grasslands by the Bankhead-Jones Farm Tenant Act.

National Recreation Area

Until 1963, National Recreation Areas were created by executive order but a change in policy means that all Areas designated thereafter are by legislative action. National Recreation Areas can be managed by the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management or the U.S. Forest Service. NRAs are usually created to encourage water sports on lakes created by the damming of rivers.

National Wildlife Refuge

Originally defined by the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act of 1966 a National Wildlife Refuges exist, unsurprisingly, as habitats for specific or groups of species. They are created by congressional legislation and administrated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

National Seashore

Usually controlled by the National Park Service, National Seashores are protected areas that are similar to both NRA’s and National Parks. Most of the areas contained within a National Seashore is available for recreation, often including vehicular offroading trails.

National Historical Park

National Historical Parks or National Historic Sites are historically significant structures or areas governed by the National Park Service. These areas were at one time declared by the Secretary of the Interior, but in modern times by acts of congress.


Parkways are roads controlled by the National Park Service and are often scenic roads through federally controlled lands, such as Blue Ridge and Rock Creek parkways. Others, such as a significant portion of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, are not maintained by the NPS but state and local agencies instead.


16 USC - Conservation
43 USC - Public Lands