Public lands are my favorite thing. Getting away deep into the wilderness couldn’t be possible without large swaths of land that belong to the public. And because they belong to the public, they are open to all to explore. However, there are many different types of public lands, and they all have their own rules and regulations. So it’s important to familiarize yourself with them if you spent a great deal of time in the wilderness.
Once I was trying to find a campsite near the Buffalo National River; however, they were completely booked up. I began searching the other types of public lands around the area, like the Ozark National Forest, so I could find a place to pitch my tent for the night. Knowing the types of public lands and how they work can broaden your horizons in exploring the wilds.
National parks are most famous and notable of all public lands. When most people think of public lands, they think of national parks.
Because national parks are reserved for special and unique places in nature, they are the most protected. You will find the strictest rules and regulations when recreating on these public lands. Don’t be discouraged by that though. Rules and regulations are there for a reason. We want to preserve these wonderful spaces for future generations.
Many people visit national parks for their scenic beauty and uniqueness and not for an experience in the outdoors. That means they draw more people who are not familiar with Leave No Trace and the like. So more rules and regulations are not a bad thing.
The national parks fall under the Department of Interior, and rules and regulations vary by park. For example, the most visited National Park, Smoky Mountain National Park, does not have an entrance fee. However, most national parks have entrance fees, and the more popular ones have higher fees. In some national parks, backcountry permits are not required, while others they are not only required, but hard to obtain.
And don’t let the word “park” fool you. There are many types of national parks, including National Seashores, National Historic Sites, National Rivers, National Lakeshores, National Monuments, and much more.
Probably the largest portion of the different types of public lands controlled by the U.S. parks, they are under the rule of the federal government but are listed under the Department of Agriculture.
Where national parks’ main purpose is to preserve the land for recreation, education, and conservation for the people, national forests’ main purpose are to preserve various lands for their resources.
This is one reason why hunting is allowed in national forests but mostly not in national parks. The federal government can also use the national forest for logging to create wood products.
Camping and other recreation are less regulated, however, some popular locations might be more regulated than some of the national parks. For example, if you want to hike Mount Whitney, the highest mountain in the contiguous United States, you have to have a permit. And it’s not an easy one to get. But that is because so many people want to hike it, they need to limit the impact of humans on the area.
Also under national forests are national grasslands.
Bureau of Land Management
I, personally, am not that familiar with the Bureau of Land Management because we don’t have this type of public land in Arkansas. This is kind of a mix between national parks and national forests. It is governed by the Department of Interior like the national parks but used mainly for its resources like national forests.
Most BLM land is in 12 western states: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.
Farmers out west can graze cattle on BLM land, but recreation is also allowed. Some National Monuments, like Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, are also part of BLM.
Corp of Engineers
Corps of Engineers land usually includes some sort of large body of water. For those familiar with Arkansas, think Lake Ouachita, Lake DeGray, and Greers Ferry Lake. You can also find some Corp of Engineer recreation areas on the Arkansas River.
Governed under the Department of Defense, the Corp of Engineers has three main purposes: engineer regiment, military construction, and civil works. They maintain control and provide maintenance of several lake dams and locks and dams on large riverways, such as the Arkansas River.
That’s why on Lake Ouachita, the recreation areas are built and maintained by the Corps of Engineers–all but one that is. It is the state park. The Corps controls the lake for numerous reasons. Recreation is just one of them. Other reasons include flood control and water supply.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Governed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, National Wildlife Refuges are one of the many types of public lands for us to enjoy. They are protected areas set aside specifically to preserve fish, wildlife, and plants throughout the country.
These lands are for public enjoyment and conservation efforts. They include all habitat types from tropical coastal wetlands to tundra. They are a great place to go, explore, and learn about nature, ecology, and that is why they are important to preserve.
Like national parks, state parks have more rules and regulations and are more for the enjoyment and education of the visitor. State parks are governed by the state where they are is located.
Also, like National Park, they preserve special and unique places in nature. For example, the largest waterfall in Arkansas, Cedar Falls, is in a State Park.
Something to keep in mind is each state has different rules, and regulations and fees. So you will want to check each with the state park before going.
Various State Wildlife Agencies
In Arkansas, we have the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. In other states, wildlife agencies have other titles, but they all have the same purpose: to protect wildlife by establishing laws and regulations for fishing and hunting and to encourage a healthy population of wildlife. Many states, like Arkansas, have wildlife management areas where you can hunt, fish, camp, and explore.
Even if you’re not into hunting and fishing, you can explore these lands. But before you do, you will want to double check to see what hunting is in season. The last thing you want to do is be mistaken for a deer, or at the very lest mess up a hunt for someone.
One of my favorite things to do with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission lands is to explore their water trails with my kayak.
Some states have state forests. They are like national forests but governed by the state.
Different types of public lands
There are many different types of public lands. As part of Leave No Trace Principle 1 – Plan Ahead and Prepare – you should always research your area before you go exploring. That way you will know what the rules and regulations are and how to go about following them.