Guide to Public Lands

It’s called the “sage grouse strut.”

Every morning between February and May, male birds “puff out their chests, pop their air sacs, and fan their tail feathers” to impress hens, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The dance floor is a sparsely vegetated area of the range called a “lek,” chosen by male birds so that the females can have a better view of their courtship display.

USDA biologist Trisha Cracroft discussed how sage-grouse mate with the Sage Grouse Initiative and explained that while the males dance, the hens watch under the cover of the sagebrush, which they’ll also use as protection for their nest after mating.

Male sage grouses have been strutting across their 173 million-acre, 11-state range for hundreds of thousands of years, but in 2019 the Trump administration lifted limits on energy development on or near leks. In December, a judge in the U.S. District Court of Idaho halted a batch of oil and gas leases on federal land in Colorado that had been sage-grouse protected habitat — reflecting the struggle over the White House’s push to prioritize energy production on public land.

Although national laws outline processes for changing the uses of public lands — including incorporating public feedback — the changes have sparked concern among conservationists that adequate environmental reviews are not being conducted, particularly for controversial energy extraction methods like hydraulic fracturing.

University of Dayton law professor Blake Watson said those changes are closely tied to the issue of climate change.

“Is there going to be an adverse impact on the climate,” he said, “and what direction should the federal agency go in light of these concerns?”

Land management agencies must balance the needs of varied stakeholders, from utility companies to campers. In Colorado, for example, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is working to incorporate federal priorities, represent the needs of a growing local population and protect natural resources. Jayson Barangan of the BLM’s Colorado office said current objectives include focusing on energy development, protecting big game habitats and providing recreation access.

The BLM does not “engage in partisan land management,” Barangan said. “The mission stays the same regardless of the administration, and I would say the priorities shift.”

But federal priorities do influence how the nation’s land managers balance the interests of stakeholders — from recreationalists to miners —  and ultimately change the way the public interacts with their land.

Who, exactly, is in charge of managing that land? What agencies take on what roles in that management? And what are the key laws that govern how those agencies manage public lands?

How Federal Land Is Managed

There are four federal agencies that are primarily responsible for managing the nation’s federal land: the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Here’s a look at what each agency does.

A circle graph representing the amount of U.S. public land managed by different U.S. government agencies.

The National Park Service, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management together manage nearly one-third of the nation’s land. Of the 2.3 billion acres of land in the country, the National Park Service oversees 85 million acres, the Fish and Wildlife Service manages 150 million acres, the Forest Service controls 193 million acres and the Bureau of Land Management is responsible for 248 million surface acres.

Bureau of Land Management (BLM)

ROLE: The BLM manages land for multiple uses, including renewable and non-renewable energy development; livestock grazing; mining; logging; outdoor recreation; and conserving natural, historical and cultural resources.

PARENT AGENCY: U.S. Department of the Interior

BUDGET: $1 billion in fiscal 2019

OVERSEES: 245 million surface acres and 700 million sub-surface acres of U.S. land, including nearly one-third of its minerals. This includes 221 wilderness areas; 27 national monuments; 636 national conservation lands; 2,400 miles of wild and scenic rivers; and 6,000 miles of national scenic and historic trails.


Types of public land the Bureau of Land Management oversees:

NATIONAL CONSERVATION AREAS: Public lands managed by the BLM that have significant cultural, historical or recreational value. 

NATIONAL HISTORIC TRAILS: Original trails or routes with national historical significance.

NATIONAL MONUMENTS: Areas designed to preserve at least one nationally significant resource. They are typically smaller than national parks and may include elements of military history. They are managed by both the BLM and NPS.

WILD AND SCENIC RIVERWAYS: Free-flowing streams or rivers with natural, cultural or recreational value. These waterways are managed by the BLM, NPS and USFS.

WILDERNESS AREAS: Part of the National Wilderness Preservation System, these areas include more than 109 million acres of national parks, national forests, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lands and Bureau of Land Management lands.

National Park Service (NPS)

ROLE: The National Park Service cares for national parks and monuments, protects habitats of threatened and endangered plants and animals, and preserves archaeological sites and historic structures.

PARENT AGENCY: U.S. Department of the Interior

BUDGET: About $3 billion in fiscal 2019  

OVERSEES: More than 85 million acres that includes: 11 national battlefields, 4 national battlefield parks, 1 national battlefield site, 9 national military parks, 57 national historical parks, 76 national historic sites, 1 international historic site, 3 national lakeshores, 30 national memorials, 84 national monuments, 61 national parks, 4 national parkways, 19 national preserves, 2 national reserves, 18 national recreation areas, 5 national rivers, 10 national wild and scenic rivers and riverways, 3 national scenic trails, 10 national seashores and 11 other sites, including the White House.


Types of public land the National Park Service oversees:

INTERNATIONAL HISTORIC SITE: A site relevant to both U.S. and Canadian history. Saint Croix Island, also called Dochet Island, is the only designated international historic site in the United States and serves as a monument to the beginnings of the United States and Canada. Situated on the border of Maine and Canada, the island preserves the history of one of the first French settlements in North America. 


NATIONAL HISTORICAL PARKS: Areas that are often larger and more complex than national historic sites but commemorate important people and events in U.S. history.

NATIONAL LAKESHORES AND NATIONAL SEASHORES: Areas that protect shorelines and islands and that provide opportunities for water-based recreation. 

NATIONAL MEMORIALS: Areas that are primarily commemorative, including monuments that are not necessarily located on historically significant sites. 

NATIONAL PARKS: Large areas of land, water or both that contain a variety of resources and are protected for their natural values.

NATIONAL PARKWAYS: Strips of land alongside roadways that offer scenic drives. 

NATIONAL PRESERVES AND NATIONAL RESERVES: Areas established primarily for the protection of certain natural resources. Activities like hunting, fishing and mineral extraction are sometimes permitted on national preserves if they do not disturb the natural values of the region.

NATIONAL RECREATION AREAS: Originally, these sites surrounded national reservoirs impounded by dams, but the definition has grown to include land and water set aside by Congress for recreation, including in many urban areas.

NATIONAL RIVERS: Free-flowing streams or rivers with natural, cultural or recreational value.

NATIONAL SCENIC TRAILS: Footpaths in areas of natural beauty. 

NATIONAL MONUMENTS: See “national monuments” under the Bureau of Land Management section above.

WILD AND SCENIC RIVERWAYS: See “wild and scenic riverways” under the Bureau of Land Management section above.

WILDERNESS AREAS: See “wilderness areas” under the Bureau of Land Management section above.

U.S. Forest Service

ROLE: The U.S. Forest Service manages forests and grasslands for multiple uses, such as timber harvesting, mineral extraction, outdoor recreation, habitat restoration and rangeland grazing.

PARENT AGENCY: U.S. Department of Agriculture 

BUDGET: $4.77 billion in fiscal 2019

OVERSEES: 193 million acres

154 national forests, 20 national grasslands, 80 experimental forests and ranges, more than 158,000 miles of trails and 5,000 miles of wild and scenic rivers.


Types of public land the Forest Service oversees:

EXPERIMENTAL FORESTS AND RANGES: Areas on public and private lands used for ecological research, including forest hydrology, hardwood management and wildfire suppression.

NATIONAL FORESTS: Forests managed by the U.S. Forest Service for multiple uses, including timber harvesting, grazing, mineral extraction and recreation. They often provide a buffer around national parks.

NATIONAL GRASSLANDS: Prairie lands managed for multiple uses, such as hunting, livestock grazing, recreation and mineral extraction.

NATIONAL HISTORIC SITES: Places that commemorate important people, events and activities in U.S. history.

WILD AND SCENIC RIVERWAYS: See “wild and scenic riverways” under the Bureau of Land Management section above.

WILDERNESS AREAS: See “wilderness areas” under the Bureau of Land Management section above.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

ROLE: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service protects endangered species, upholds wildlife laws, manages migratory birds, restores fisheries, conserves and restores wildlife habitats, contributes to international conservation efforts and manages the country’s National Wildlife Refuge System.

PARENT AGENCY: U.S. Department of the Interior

BUDGET: $2.9 billion in fiscal 2019

OVERSEES: More than 150 million acres that includes 560+ national wildlife refuges, waterfowl production areas and small wetlands.


Types of public land the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service oversees:

NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGES: Lands and waters designed to protect, manage and restore wildlife, fish, plants and their habitats. These areas are generally closed to recreational activities.

SMALL WETLANDS: A type of waterfowl production area.  

WATERFOWL PRODUCTION AREAS: Wetlands and grasslands to conserve the habitats of migratory birds. Though they operate similarly to national wildlife refuges, WPAs are generally open to recreation.

WILDERNESS AREAS: See “wilderness areas” under the Bureau of Land Management section above.

10 Significant Public Land Laws

These laws help govern the ways federal lands are managed.


AMERICAN ANTIQUITIES ACT: This law was the first to designate archaeological sites on public lands as important public resources.


NATIONAL PARK SERVICE ORGANIC ACT: This act established the National Park Service as an agency to promote and protect national park lands.


LAND AND WATER CONSERVATION FUND: This fund, financed through offshore oil and gas drilling operations, was established by Congress to protect natural land, water and cultural heritage sites and to provide recreational opportunities.


THE WILDERNESS ACT: This law established the National Wilderness Preservation System.


NATIONAL ENVIRONMENTAL POLICY ACT: Known as NEPA, this law ensures environmental impacts of all federal projects are considered before any action is taken.


NATIONAL ENVIRONMENTAL POLICY ACT: Known as NEPA, this law ensures environmental impacts of all federal projects are considered before any action is taken.


ENDANGERED SPECIES ACT: This act protects threatened and endangered animals and plants, as well as their habitats.


FOREST AND RANGELAND RENEWABLE RESOURCES PLANNING ACT: This law dictates how the U.S. Forest Service plans the management of renewable resources in national forests.


FEDERAL LAND POLICY AND MANAGEMENT ACT: This act governs how Bureau of Land Management lands are overseen.


NATIONAL FOREST MANAGEMENT ACT: This law amended the Forest and Rangeland Renewable Resources Planning Act, changing the planning process for natural resource management within national forests to protect forests from permanent damage.


NATIONAL RESOURCES MANAGEMENT ACT: This law is one of the largest federal conservation measures enacted in the last decade. It protected 2.4 million acres of land and permanently reauthorized the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Recent Changes to Public Land Use

Map of federal lands and Native American reservations

The Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service and U.S. National Parks Service manage most of the land in the western United States.

Barangan said oil and gas leases are among the most controversial land use issues the agency oversees. National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) protocol requires any change to BLM land to undergo an environmental impact assessment and several rounds of public input. The process plays out hundreds of times each year in Colorado on issues ranging from special recreation permits for rock climbing to transportation projects. Energy companies must go through a second environmental impact assessment before drilling wells.

“If folks have concerns, we want to hear them,” Barangan said.

There are additional environmental changes public land managers encounter. Drilling and mining plans have been laid for once-protected land elsewhere, including two downsized Utah national monuments, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, and Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Although oil and gas wells can more drastically alter untouched landscapes, such drilling can be contentious regardless of location.

“In our office, oil and gas is a small program but a very controversial one,” said Ben Blom, field manager for the California BLM’s Central Coast Field Office.

The federal government has attempted to open more than 700,000 acres of California BLM land to oil and gas drilling and fracking, including in counties where fracking was previously banned. The plan would allow another 37 wells on 200 acres in Blom’s jurisdiction during the next 20 years. He said most wells would be drilled near some of the 100 existing extraction sites in the region.

University of Dayton law professor Blake Watson said it remains to be seen “whether the change in focus … is really going to result in some sort of permanent reconfiguration of how we use our public lands.”

Resources for Public Lands Stakeholders

While private landowners have greater control over how their land is used, it can be more difficult for public landowners — American tax payers — to have their opinions considered as public land uses shift.

Watson said Americans who prioritize conservation of public lands “may express concern” because “there is clearly an orientation towards focusing on the resources that can be extracted.”

Here are actions people can take and organizations they can join to maximize their voice in debates surrounding how public land is used:

FOR LOCAL RESIDENTS: Attend NEPA meetings for public land changes close to home. Submit feedback during open comment and protest periods on new projects.

FOR ENVIRONMENTALISTS AND GENERAL OUTDOOR RECREATIONALISTS: Learn about national activist groups like Keep it Public, the Outdoor Alliance or the Natural Resources Defense Council. Large membership bases make their lawsuits against federal agencies viable.

FOR HUNTERS AND FISHERS: Conservation-centered hunting groups like Backcountry Hunters & Anglers or Artemis provide opportunities to get involved.

FOR CLIMBERS: Research organizations like Access Fund or the American Alpine Club, which engage in conservation and advocacy efforts.

FOR HIKERS: The American Hiking Society advocates for trails open to the public.

FOR SKIERS AND SNOWBOARDERS: Research groups like The Winter Wildlands Alliance.

FOR MOUNTAIN BIKERS: The International Mountain Bicycling Association works to protect terrain for cyclists.

FOR EQUESTRIANS: Join and support groups like Equestrian Land Conservation Resource.

FOR LOCAL RESIDENTS: Visit the Equestrian Land Conservation Resource website.

Citation for this content: University of Dayton’s online J.D. degree.