Before we dive in,
The purpose of this piece is to provide a high-level scope of the current systems and people who manage public lands in the US. It is crucial to acknowledge that modern stewardship and land ownership are constructs that did not exist prior to the colonization of North America. The lands discussed in this piece were previously cared for by Indigenous peoples who were forcibly removed from their ancestral homelands. This much deeper subject deserves ample coverage, consideration, and careful research, which we will take on with you in future pieces.
It's an important question, is this someone who manages rocks and dirt, real estate, ecosystems? When the term "land manager" is used, people usually reply with nods of vague understanding and curious eyes looking for further explanation. Public land managers are stewards- people who care for a place- an area that has been set aside for public purpose, whether it be conservation of an ecosystem, protection of a culturally significant site, recreation access, economic uses, watershed or fisheries protection, or (usually) a combination of these.
Land management is a fundamental aspect of our government, responsible for over 35% of all land in the United States, making up the vast majority of natural wilderness left in the country. These lands are "public," and while that means that everyone has access to them, it does not mean that they are un-owned, unmaintained, or unprotected.
In the US government, land management agencies take on the full stewardship responsibility of the land and any use or impact on the natural resources of that area. Land managers try to influence the outcomes of these resources through a mix of active interventions and protection of biological processes. These outcomes range from conservation, recreation, agriculture, mining/forestry leases, development, and more. The active side of their efforts includes trail construction, maintenance, restoration projects, scientific research, and careful observation of the land to determine the necessary measures for preservation.
In the past, land management focused mainly on the logistics and benefits of harvesting these lands as a natural resource. However, as highlighted in the outstanding podcast "Timber Wars" from Oregon Public Radio, there has been a shift from resource harvesting to recreation, bringing about new responsibilities and challenges for land managers. Recently, a primary focus of public land management organizations is to mitigate the damage caused by an influx of human traffic on public lands.
In broad terms, public land management organizations are the people who steward the land designated as open for use by the public: parks, open space, forests, and almost any other piece of land that isn't privately owned. The reality is much more complex; the remaining natural lands in the US consist of an interwoven patchwork of thousands of agencies.
In the US, there are five main categories of public land management: federal, state, local, land trusts, and nonprofit land conservation NGOs (non-government organizations).
Let's dig in to these one at a time.
Federal land management agencies were first formed during the American Revolution when colonies started to yield their territorial claims to the federal government. As the country expanded westward, land was transferred to states to be leased or sold, and the funds were used for schools and other state institutions. Additional lands were granted for railroads and roads, and some were given to individuals who settled the west and midwest. As more resources and uses were discovered on these lands, five central federal agencies were created to oversee their management over time.
State land management agencies came about when the federal government distributed land to each state for their purposes. States have individual land management departments, and they manage the state's parks, recreation areas, historical sites, etc. There are roughly 18.7 million acres of state park areas in the US, with 6,792 individual parks. Some states choose to maintain management authority over more of their land, while others relinquish those responsibilities to federal agencies.
Local land management agencies steward the public lands in our back yards: our city parks, open spaces, trails, and recreation sites. Local governments will typically have one or more agencies dedicated to protecting and maintaining these lands and ensuring safe access for all in the community. Often times, the duties of local agencies overlap with those of the federal agencies.
An example of a local public land management agency is the City of Boulder Open Space & Mountain Parks (OSMP) in Colorado. With outdoor activity being one of the major contributing factors to tourism and the economy in Boulder, OSMP manages over 45,000 acres of land and 155 miles of trails, all serving roughly 165 million visits each year.
Land Trusts are organizations that own land or are given rights to a piece of land by the owner for conservation. There are two types of land trusts: title-holding trusts and conservation land trusts. The latter falls under the umbrella of public land management. Typically, conservation land trusts will take over stewardship of a property after its development rights have been donated by the owner in a conservation easement. These can be tailored to many specificities, but generally, landowners are given a tax deduction in exchange for the donation. More than 1,300 private conservation land trusts have conserved roughly 56 million acres of land in the United States. Thanks in part to these agreements, it is estimated that land conservation between 2005 and 2015 increased by 175%.
Nonprofit land conservation, NGOs are organizations that purchase or acquire privately owned lands and manage them to create protected and accessible public land. There are over 2,000 land conservation nonprofits in the US, one example being The American Prairie Reserve. Their primary focus is to purchase privately held lands in Montana's Northern Great Plains so that the region is managed "thoughtfully and collaboratively with state and federal agencies for wildlife conservation and public access.". The American Prairie Reserve is in the process of creating the largest wildlife reserve in the continental US, more than 3 million acres of connected and protected habitat.
While this article merely scratches the surface of US public land management, there's no need to feel overwhelmed. Identifying who manages which areas is typically relatively easy, and it is imperative that we do so. Knowing who stewards the land we visit helps us understand regulations, rules, and best and worst practices. The information distributed by land managers is the product of scientific research and countless hours of labor to establish the fine line between recreation and conservation. When the rules and regulations are ignored, the land suffers, and adventurer safety wains. Our stewards work hard to ensure these areas are preserved and accessible for the benefit of the land, the wildlife, and us. The least we can do is learn who they are and how we can help in their mission. Public lands are one of our most treasured natural resources, and their longevity heavily depends on our willingness to help them thrive. Listening to and learning from land managers is the best way to support public lands.
September 24th is National Public Lands Day. Get out there and enjoy the natural brilliance, and if you see a ranger, stop for a chat. You'll walk away having learned something very worthwhile.