Wide View of Man looking out over Yellowstone
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A Quick Guide to Public Lands


You are rich in the opportunity to have fun. You are a public landowner. As a citizen of the United States of America, you own over 640,000 million acres of land--that is 28% of the U.S. landmass. This land is held in trust and stewarded by our federal government agencies. 

These public lands are some of the country's wildest, most spectacular places. Most of them offer endless recreation opportunities: hiking, camping, biking, fishing, hunting, horseback riding, paddling, etc.

Most of us vaguely know this, of course, but we probably don't realize how many different types of public land there are, how much is offered, and how they're managed. Our public land system may be great, but it's also pretty confusing. This quick guide should clear things up a little and hopefully lead you to your next camping trip and hiking trail.

Dept. Interior Public Lands

Boy hiking along dune succession trail in Indiana Dunes National Park.

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National Parks. National Parks are perhaps the most famous type of federally stewarded public lands with icons like Yellowstone and Glacier National Park. The mission of national parks is "preserve unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations."


These lands are not multiple-use, which means no logging or resource extraction. They can, however, suffer from too much love when crowds stress the infrastructure. You will find every sort of camping throughout many National Parks, but it is usually very regulated. Even backcountry camping requires reservations, and you must stay at designated sites. This provides maximum protection of habitat from visitor use.

RELATED: How to Find the Best Camping in National Parks and Forests

Dept. of Agriculture Public Lands

This is a photograph of Whitaker Point, a rocky overlook in summer at Ozark National Forest in Arkansas, USA.

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National Forests and Grasslands

The mission here is "to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation's forest and grasslands to meet the needs of the present and future generations," which means National Forests are "multiple uses" open for recreation as well as logging, grazing, and mineral extraction. 


Generally, access and opportunity are liberal and varied across landscapes. Each forest is guided by individual forest and travel plans tailored to hyperlocal and regional characteristics, resources, and values. Type the name of the woods you plan to visit into your search engine to find specific opportunities and unique rules for that area.

There are many opportunities to camp in a national forest, from campground to dispersed camping, which means you can camp anywhere you feel suitable. It is essential to practice Leave No Trace methods as best you can or as required with dispersed camping to minimize your impact on the habitat and wildlife around you.

To reserve camping in any federally managed campground, visit Recreation.gov.

Other Things To Know About Public Lands

Soft focus, low angle photograph of an unrecognizable man wearing hiking sneakers and walking on a trail covered with autumn leaves.

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These are your lands, and you have a right to recreate on them, but not all types of recreation are allowed in every place. For example, you can only travel by non-motorized methods in some locations. Motorized recreation is closed at certain times of year to protect wildlife, or hunting is allowed in some areas or designations and not in others. 


Different types of public land are managed in different ways. Some are collected for multiple uses, meaning all kinds of resource extraction, industry, and personal recreation. The service is balanced by the land management agency to the best of its ability. Other types of public land are primarily managed to conserve habitat and wildlife with limited use by humans.

If you love our public lands, water, and wildlife as much as we do, think about joining or donating to one of the many conservation organizations that work on our behalf to keep our shared lands healthy and in the public trust. These are some of the organizations leading the work. Check out Backcountry Hunters & Anglers,  Trust for Public Land, and National Forest Foundation, just to name a few.



Though embedded like a tick in her hometown of Whitefish, Montana, Rachel Schmidt has spent her life adventuring across the continent. Her career spans a spectrum of the recreation industry and conservation work, with a pitstop for a term as the Directory of the Montana Governor's Office of Outdoor Recreation. Most of the time, she's fly fishing, camping, hunting, skiing, rafting, boating, drinking whiskey, and/or chasing her two teenage sons and Hal-the-bird-dog. Instagram @mtraerae.

Learn more about public lands on Wide Open Roads Facebook!

READ MORE: Public Lands with Deep-Rooted Connections to Indigenous Peoples

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