A traveler’s guide to America’s federal lands

From the red sandstone formations of Utah to the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, the United States holds a wealth of dazzling, resource-rich wild spaces. The government has been designating and extending protections for its public lands for a hundred years since the U.S. Forest Service was established in 1905. The U.S. has added dozens of designations to better protect these resources for future generations. It’s resulted in a labyrinth of acronyms and confusing titles that can easily mystify travelers. While rules vary from site to site, it’s good to generally know where you can camp, hunt, or even cut your own holiday tree. On some lands, these activities are welcomed—on others, they could result in a fine or jail time. The first step to understanding our federal lands is knowing the players. Ninety-five percent of natural spaces open to the public are managed by four agencies: the National Parks Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Here are the differences in these agencies’ missions, the sort of lands they oversee—and what that means for travelers. WA ME ND MT VT OR ID NH MN SD WI NY MA CT RI WY MI PACIFIC OCEAN IA PA NJ NV NE OH IN MD UT IL DE ATLANTIC OCEAN HI WV CO CA VA KS MO KY NC TN AZ OK NM SC PACIFIC OCEAN AR MS GA AL TX LA CANADA FL Land management agency AK U.S. National Park Service Gulf of Mexico Fish and Wildlife Service National Forest Service Gulf of Alaska Bureau of Land Management Bering Sea Soren Walljasper, NG Staff Source: USGS The National Parks System Who manages the land? The National Parks Service (NPS), founded in 1916, has a dual mission: to preserve unique resources and make them accessible for public use and enjoyment. NPS lands generally receive a higher level of protection than other agencies. What is it? The National Parks System contains a lot more than the 63 National Parks, which are large areas with outstanding natural features and ecological resources. It also includes National Preserves and National Seashores, which function much like national parks. The NPS also oversees areas of historical significance. These include National Historic Sites, which are specific locations—including homes or schools (like Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas). National Historical Parks preserve broader areas related to events or people in American history—such as the Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia, which includes Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. National Battlefield Parks/Sites and National Military Parks commemorate military history and National Memorials commemorate people or events. (Click here to search all NPS sites.) What can you do there? National Parks tend to be the most restrictive—typically prohibiting activities including hunting, off-leashed pets, and drone use. National Preserves are more lenient with activities that leave a larger footprint—hunting, fishing, off-roading, etc. Inside historic buildings, there are strict rules about where visitors can walk and sit, and what they can touch. National Wildlife Refuge Who manages it? The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) main mission is the conservation of wild habitats. That includes enforcing wildlife laws, protecting endangered species, and managing migratory birds. What is it? The National Wildlife Refuge encompasses all lands managed by the FWS. (Find a refuge open to visitors here.) This includes Waterfowl Production Areas, which are small wetlands or grassland habitats for migratory birds