Our Public Lands

December 04, 2016  •  1 Comment

There is no question that my favorite spots for nature photography are in our abundant public lands.

I thought it would be worthwhile to take time and think for a few minutes about what our public lands are and why they are so important. Everyone knows that many parks are public lands - city parks, county parks, state parks, and, of course, national parks. America was the first country to create a national park - Yellowstone in 1872. The first national park was created to preserve the amazing beauty of the geo-thermal features, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River, the other rivers and lakes, and the abundant and diverse wildlife. Yellowstone became a model for the world.

Yellowstone 2016-3-8601-EditYellowstone 2016-3-8601-Edit Other U.S. national parks followed and in 1916 the National Park Service (NPS) was created to manage the growing number of parks within the Department of the Interior. Today, Congress has created 59 National parks protecting both ecological and historical treasures. But, the NPS manages more than just our national parks. Presidents have the ability to create national monuments without the approval of Congress. Devil's Tower National Monument, Wyoming was the first designated in 1906. Since then, presidents have created about 413 national monuments, historical parks, battlefields, seashores, rivers, recreational areas, and other sites managed by the NPS and, more recently, by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM.)

The NPS is in the US Department of the Interior and employs over 20,000 people with an annual budget of about $3B to manage over 84M acres of public lands.  More recently, the national parks have become more dependent upon over 220,000 volunteers helping the paid employees to provide everything from visitor services to maintenance.

NPS holdingsNPS holdings

The National Park Service is charged with the protection and management of many different types of public lands. Specifically the NPS charge is "to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and wildlife therein, 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" - clearly, a huge task considering the size, diversity, and remoteness of many of these lands. National Parks are a large and important part of the charge but there are many distinct types of lands managed by the NPS.

NPS managementNPS management

The highest visitation to NPS lands is, by far, in some of the parkways and memorials in and near our large cities but the Great Smokey Mountains NP leads the annual visitation record to National Parks with more than 10.5M/year followed by Grand Canyon NP (5.5M) and Rocky Mountain, Yosemite, and Yellowstone (each over 4M.) The least visited national park is Isle Royale NP, MI at only 18,600 visitors in 2015.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is an agency within the US Department of the Interior that administers more than 247.3 million acres in the United States which constitutes one-eighth of the landmass of the country.  The mission of the BLM is "to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations." In recent years the BLM has started to manage some 23 national monuments such as the Grand Staircase of the Escalante NM. Much of the public land managed by the BLM is in the western US and is used for many purposes such as recreation, grazing, mining, forestry, and, strangely, helium management.


The BLM generates more than $6B annually , mostly from energy development, but recreational opportunities abound.

BLM landsBLM lands BLM public lands have been challenged in recent years in Utah, Nevada, and Oregon by ranchers and 'states rights' advocates who have demanded private or state ownership of some of the lands for commercial purposes.

The United States Forest Service (USFS) is an agency of the Department of Agriculture that administers the nation's 154 national forests and 20 national grasslands.  The Forest Service has a total budget of $5.5 billion, of which 42% is spent fighting fires. The Forest Service employs 34,250 employees in 750 locations, including 10,050 firefighters, 737 law enforcement personnel, and 500 scientists. The mission of the Forest Service is "to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the Nation's forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations" making the national forests lands of many uses. Through implementation of land and resource management plans, the USFS ensures sustainable ecosystems by restoring and maintaining species diversity and ecological productivity that helps provide recreation, water, timber, minerals, fish, wildlife, wilderness, and aesthetic values for current and future generations of people.  The USFS manages 193M acres of national forest and grasslands (over 80% in western states), including 59M acres of roadless areas (wilderness); 14,077 recreation sites; 143,346 miles of trails; 374,883 miles of roads; and the harvesting of 1.5 billion trees per year. Further, the Forest Service recently fought fires on 3M acres.


As photographers and outdoor recreation enthusiasts we want our public lands protected and preserved but there are serious threats to these lands. The competing interests of recreation and commercial development have clashed in recent years as states and private individuals want control over the land and its use. The history of the Forest Service has been fraught with controversy, as various interests and national values have grappled with the appropriate management of the many resources within the forests including grazing, timber, mining, recreation, wildlife habitat, and wilderness. Because of continuing development elsewhere, the large size of National Forests have made them de facto wildlife reserves for a number of rare and common species. Hunting and fishing are allowed in almost all national forest areas and are controlled by state fish and wildlife services and local state laws.

Our voices are needed to support federal public lands than are protected and open to all visitors.

I have been fortunate to visit more than 42 national parks (~70%), more than 28 national monuments, and live minutes from the Bridger-Teton National Forest.

[Please Note: In preparation of the post, I have borrowed the tables, maps, and some of the text from public federal information sources and Wikipedia.]


Jon York(non-registered)
NIce write up Loren. I, like you, enjoy our public lands. As a matter of fact I'm in a Texas State Park as I write this. Not part of the National Park system, but public land. I've been fortunate to have visited 47 of our National Parks, and over 200 of the units of our National Park system. Keep up the good fight.
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