So, How Well Do You Know Your Public Lands?

Public lands aren’t just about recreation. The most important conservation work often happens outside that space.


The recent comment period run by Trump’s Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, on the fate of 27 national monuments turned a lot of my friends into activists. It was an easy way to weigh in on places that are disproportionately important to the outdoor community, and it was uplifting to see so many people—from professional athletes and brands to everyday outdoorsfolk—engaging in some form of political action. A life spent playing outside can feel escapist, self-indulgent even. After all, we’re primarily concerned with having a good time. Banding together to fight for something we all care about was reassuring—maybe we care about more than vertical change and powder days and new routes.

That said, as I combed through the list of monuments under review, I found myself focusing on the ones I’d played in, or hoped to play in in the future. I was concerned about never being able to climb in Bear’s Ears, or go canyoneering in Escalante, or hike through the Katahdin woods. Maybe I’m only interested in public lands as they relate to my ability to have a good time, only concerned with restrictions that limit my recreation options.

If the only time the outdoor community speaks up about public lands is when they’re adventure-able, do we misunderstand the scope and purpose of our commons? Do we miss out on an opportunity to engage Americans who might not be motivated by recreation? I set out to learn exactly how far public lands extend beyond the parks and monuments we know so well, exactly who is in charge of what, and why.

Here’s a rundown:

The executive branch of the government is responsible for all of federal public lands. It’s why community organizers and activists consider the Trump administration such a threat to the state of wilderness. Congress can pass laws regarding public lands, but the management is up to the president, vice president, and their appointed cabinet. Since Bill Clinton’s presidency, the majority of laws regarding public lands have stalled in a partisan congress, so the real change in this space in recent years has been done by the executive branch, and by executive order, specifically—including the designation of over 20 national monuments by Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama. That said, Congress is the only governing body who can shrink or sell off public lands, and though they’re slow-moving, in recent years a handful of bills compromising public lands have been introduced or passed.

Federal public lands are run by the Department of the Interior, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of DefenseNon-federal public lands, state and local parks, are run by states, local municipalities, and counties.

The Department of the Interior is responsible for 75% of all federal lands in the United States, including national parks, wildlife refuges, national monuments, and water resources including dams and reservoirs. Beneath their broad umbrella falls the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Bureau of Reclamation.

You’re familiar with the NPS. It manages 413 units covering 84.4 million acres including national parks, battlefields, lakeshores, historic parks, preserves, wild and scenic rivers, and some national monuments. Their stated mission is to “conserve the scenery and natural and historical objects and wildlife” 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.” So, preservation first, recreation second for the lands protected under the NPS, which were typically chosen for aesthetic or historical value.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is non-recreational in mission. Committed to “work with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people,” Fish and Wildlife manages the 150 million acre National Wildlife Refuge System, hatcheries, ecological services field stations, and fishery resources. That said, the vast majority of wildlife habitat exists outside of federal land, and plenty of USFWS work happens through partnerships and programs that help protect fish and wildlife on private land as well.

The Bureau of Land Management manages more land than any federal agency in the United States—over 260 million acres—and their responsibilities are more diffuse. Their stated mission is “to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations,” which includes managing, in addition to their 260 million aboveground acres, 700 million acres of subsurface mineral estate that lies beneath federal, state and private lands. While recreation and public use is part of the BLM’s job—they manage about 35 million acres of national monuments, wilderness areas, and other protected areas under National Conservation Lands—they also factor heavily into the mining and ranching industries. Some 155 million acres of BLM land is leased to ranchers. 27.2 million acres are leased to oil and gas interests, which are home to over 94,000 wells. Plenty of renewable energy comes from BLM lands, too: 48 percent of the Nation’s geothermal production and 15 percent of its installed wind power capacity. The vast majority of public land wars—ranchers fighting against paying fees to graze their animals, conservationists fighting for their national monuments, community disputes over how proper land use, campaigns against fracking—happen over BLM land. It is the most dynamic set of federal lands and the one most at risk of exploitation.

The Bureau of Reclamation manages water resources like dams and reservoirs for purposes including power and irrigation. A favorite resource for fishermen, they make most of their 6.5 million acres of land and water available for public recreation. Most importantly, though, they provide water to over 31 million people, irrigate 10 million acres of farmland, and provide hydroelectric power for 3.5 million homes. Their work is intrinsic to the environment and economy of the communities they serve.

The Department of Agriculture might seem an unlikely manager of our public lands, but the US Forest Service falls under their jurisdiction. Why? Their original purpose was sustainable management of a harvestable resource. As the United States shifted from a production to a service economy, the USFS shifted to a focus on ecosystem management for broader use, including recreation and conservation. (Also, as deforestation and habitat destruction ran rampant across the United States to great protest, and as the US began importing large amounts of lumber from Canada and other countries—our use of timber hasn’t gone down much.) Nowadays, the USFS manages 154 national forests and 20 grasslands, which, over the course of a century, became defacto wilderness areas as development continued around them. While logging still happens on USFS lands, it’s with an eye towards conservation and ecosystem management.

The last department responsible for managing some of our 600 million acres of public lands is the Department of Defense, whose Army Corps of Engineers manages dams and reservoirs, similar to the Bureau of Reclamation. Their 12 million acres of public land are favored by hunters and fishermen. The land and waterways under the management of the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation deserve a close eye: the work they do, which involved flooding and damming large areas, can have profound environmental and economic impact. They’re an excellent place to watch the collision of human and “wilderness” interests, and headlines about changes on these lands tend to go overlooked in favor of issues surrounding beloved, high-profile spaces like national parks.

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