Where and what are Utah’s public lands?

Where and what are Utah’s public lands?

(Dave Cawley, KSL Newsradio)

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SALT LAKE CITY — Contrary to popular belief, “public lands” doesn’t only refer to national monuments.

The political landscape of public lands is transforming all the time, both on a state and federal level. A massive public lands package passed through the federal legislative session earlier this year, and both President Donald Trump and President Barack Obama made major changes to the management and designations of these spaces.

What do all of these changes mean? What are public lands? This article will explain what public lands are, how they are managed and where they can be found in Utah:

Where public lands are

This map provides the locations and distribution of some of Utah’s public lands. Please note, it may not include every public lands area in the state but should provide a general overview.

Four main land management agencies

Four agencies manage around 614 million acres of public lands, or 26.6 percent of the United States, according to REI. Together these agencies collaborate to ensure the protection and appropriate use of the nation’s outdoor recreation areas.

The Bureau of Land Management takes care of 248 million acres, or 10.5 percent of U.S. land, according to REI. The United States Forest Service (USFS) runs 193 million acres comprising 8.5 percent, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) holds 89 million acres totaling 3.9 percent and the National Parks Service (NPS) manages 84 million acres comprising 3.7 percent of United States land.

National parks

These large swaths of land serve to protect a wide variety of natural and historic resources, according to the Department of the Interior. They can only be created by Congress and they are managed by the National Park Service.

The most famous subset of the public lands system, national parks are prime sightseeing destinations and accommodate large volumes of people, according to Outside. They tend to contain some of the most awe-inspiring national attractions, like Yellowstone’s thermal features and Arches’ majestic rock formations.

The downside is that National Parks tend to be very crowded, they are not ideal for camping, and many charge entry fees, according to Outside. Additionally, certain activities (hunting, mountain biking and sometimes fishing) are not allowed.

National wildlife refuges

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages wildlife refuges helping preserve fish, plants and wildlife, according to the Department of the Interior. In addition to protecting wildlife habitats, they also provide hiking trails, canoeing, kayaking, fishing, hunting and bird watching.

Note that these areas aren’t great for camping because they are typically wetlands, according to Outside. Also, most people can visit for free if they aren’t hunting, but hunters have to pay for a permit.

National forests

The U.S. Forest Service manages these multi-use regions, providing opportunities for outdoor recreation in addition to resource extraction and agricultural grazing, according to the Department of the Interior. National forests are oftentimes located close to national parks but are far less crowded.

The downside is that they are less accessible because they are essentially just underdeveloped tracts of land, Outside said. Oftentimes, national forests are free to use but, at times, they may require recreation passes at popular locations.

National monuments

These spaces are set aside to protect natural, historic or cultural features of landscapes, according to the Department of the Interior. Designated by the president, they are managed by the NPS, USFS, USFWS, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), according to REI.

Some national monuments are tourist attractions like Mount Rushmore, while others provide a space to protect Native American history, like Bears Ears.

Bureau of Land Management lands

One-tenth of the land mass in the United States is considered BLM land, and its use is balanced between resource extraction and outdoor recreation, according to Outside. There aren’t many rules for this type of land and pretty much anything within basic reason is OK to do. Shooting guns, driving off-road (in designated areas and routes) and camping without a designated site are all permitted.

National conservation areas

These public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management are set aside by Congress to protect scientific, recreational, historical and cultural features, according to the Department of the Interior.

National conservation areas are given a high level of protection due to their impressive natural beauty and biological diversity, according to Outside. They do not allow resource extraction and people generally have to explore on foot (no motorized vehicles).


These areas, untamed by humans, are designated by Congress through the Wilderness Act, according to REI. This piece of legislation was created in 1964 allowing Congress to protect pristine land as a wild space to be left unaltered. This is the highest level of protection for federally managed public lands.

Wilderness areas are great locations to find solitude, according to the Department of the Interior. They have special ecological and scenic values, and are often used as study areas. Wilderness is managed by the USFS, NPS, USFWS, and BLM.

National memorials

Commemorating a historical person or tragic event, national memorials are scattered around the country to honor important people who have been lost, according to the Department of the Interior.

National recreation areas

These lands are near and encompassing large reservoirs allowing the public to engage in water-based outdoor recreation, according to the Department of the Interior. They often include important cultural features and are great for swimming, kayaking, boating and fishing.

Reservoirs are usually designated in this way, according to Outside. They are easy to get to and have water and trails primed for use. They typically have a fee, and if a slip is needed for a boat there will likely be extra costs.

National battlefields

National battlefields seek to conserve the United States’ military history to ensure that Americans can learn from their past, according to the Department of the Interior.

Wild and scenic rivers

These rivers and the land surrounding them are preserved as wild and scenic rivers to keep them in their natural state, according to the Department of the Interior. The key is that they are free-flowing streams without any dams or human alterations.

Wild and scenic rivers are great environments for river floating and fishing in a way that allows the traveler to more fully immerse in the outdoor experience, Outside reported. They oftentimes don’t even allow motorized boats.

National seashores and lakeshores

These designations seek to preserve the natural appearance of a coastline, thus creating some of the most beautiful, unspoiled beaches in the country, Outside said. Houses are not built at these locations, nor are tourist attractions like beach bars. They often cost between $3-20/day.

National Trails

National trails are either scenic, historic and recreational, the Department of the Interior said. Congress designates trails that cross multiple areas in this way. Some famous examples include the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail and the Pony Express National Historic Trail.

Regardless of which public lands you choose to utilize or experience, it's important to understand the different designations in comprehending the political landscape surrounding them.

Editor's note: This story was updated to clarify that, though off-roading is allowed on BLM land, it needs to be kept to designated routes and areas.

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Cara MacDonald enjoys both engaging in outdoor recreation and writing about it. Born and raised in Utah, Cara enjoys skiing, rock climbing, hiking and camping. She is passionate about both learning about and experiencing the outdoors, and helping others to learn about and explore nature. She primarily writes Outdoors articles centering around wildlife and nature, highlighting adventure opportunities, and sharing tips and tricks for outdoor recreation.


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