This Land is Our Land: Navigating Our Public Land

Ever been confused about where you're allowed to explore? Camping & Hiking expert Talia Peterson shares a rundown of the United State's public land system.

A closeup up of a National Parks Pass held up against a backdrop of desert in Joshua Tree National Park

Annual Parks Pass, in Joshua Tree National Park. Photo by Talia Peterson

From sea to shining sea, the U.S. Federal Government’s land managing agencies oversee roughly 600 million acres of public land. And accounting for state, county, and municipality managed land, the U.S. is just shy of 40% publicly owned. But not all public lands are managed equally, from a multiple-uses structure to strict preservation, navigating our public land isn't as easy as parking at a trailhead, or passing through the front gate of a National Park.

As recreationalists of all activities—hiking, camping, backcountry skiing, hunting, fishing and more—understanding how to play responsibly on our public land is vital to promoting and maintaining our unique system of public land ownership.

What is Public Land?

The short answer is, public land is land that is owned by everyone—hence public. The long answer is a bit more nuanced. Public land doesn’t mean every acre we manage is accessible to everyone, but it does mean it is owned, managed, and maintained by a publicly-funded agency for the benefit of the public. Sometimes this means we don’t have recreational access to the land for a variety of reasons. This can include multi-use resource leasing, wildlife habitat restoration, or national security (Department of Defence land is technically public land). But for the vast majority of public land, we the people have the opportunity to enjoy, recreate, and make a living on our public land.

So What is Private Land, and is it Off Limits?

Private land is of course just that, privately-owned. But not being owned by a government agency does not always mean that land is off limits. There are a lot of trust-owned properties that have similar access to public land. However, crossing a public/private land boundary without permission comes with heavy legal consequences. Obtaining landowner permission to enter a property is certainly a way to legally and respectfully recreate on private land; however, it usually makes more sense to be aware of land ownership boundaries and stick to the public land anyway.

Sun streaming through clouds over mountains in Grand Teton National Park

Grand Teton National Park. Photo by Talia Peterson

Federal Land: Department of the Interior

1. National Park Service

From Yellowstone to Arches, Death Valley to Great Smoky, the National Park system highlights some of the most picturesque landscapes in the United State. National Parks are single-use management properties and are designed solely to preserve their landmarks. Each park differs in its accessibility to vehicles, but the dominant recreation in parks will include hiking, biking, occasionally climbing or fishing, and sightseeing.

Most parks have an access fee to enter the park, and often require permits to backpack or camp within the park. Some parks will have a higher recreational demand than others. Yosemite, for example, has an exceptionally competitive backcountry permit draw. For anyone looking to hike any major trail crossing through a National Park, double-check what permits are required and how far in advance you may need to apply. Always check your park’s individual regulations and permit requirements at www.nps.gov.

2. Bureau of Land Management

BLM land is managed as multi-use property. This means that it is land managed for a variety of purposes including recreation (hiking, camping, hunting, fishing, off-roading, biking, and more) as well as grazing, energy development, and timbering. BLM land is usually some of the most rugged and centers a majority of its acreage in the West.

There are very few developed campgrounds run by the BLM, and for most of their acreage, there are vast areas to find great dispersed camping. BLM land is also prime for a wide variety of recreation, not just hiking or camping. With wide-open spaces, huge off-road networks, and amazing wildlife habitat, BLM land is a great destination for dirt bikes, hunters, anglers, and shooting sports. Always check fire regulations either through the BLM, state, or county fire bans, especially in the area you plan to be. Hunters are usually exempt from fire bans in a valid rifle season with appropriate licensing, but recreational shooters and motorists should keep an eye on fire danger and do their part in preventing wildfires.

3. Other DOI Agencies You’ll Run Into

  • USFW: the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is responsible for regulating and managing one of our greatest resources, wildlife. This includes predators, game species, and fish, as well as maintaining projects to protect ecosystems. Essentially a USFW officer is similar to your state game warden, who gathers data, checks licenses and tags, and enforces local regulations.
  • USGS: The U.S. Geological Survey is a heavily research-driven arm of the DOI. From wildlife surveys to geographic information, these guys don’t do much in the way of enforcement but give them a thanks if you see them in the field. Their research does a lot to benefit our public lands.

Federal Land: Department of Agriculture

United States Forest Service

With 154 national forests, 20 national grasslands, and 193 million acres of land, the USFS is one of the most common pieces of public land most folks will play on. Ski resorts, for example, are usually leased on national forest land, and most national parks and mountain ranges are surrounded by national forests.

Within those national forests, you can also find areas that are designated wilderness areas. This is something to keep an eye out for, as wilderness areas are preservation-oriented management areas, and there is no vehicular access. This includes snowmobiles, dirt bikes, and ATVs for both the public and the management and rescue agencies in the area. Forestry and trail maintenance are done old school—mules, shovels, and hand saws. This is true for search and rescue as well. There have been many snowmobilers here in Colorado who, at least unknowingly, got their sled stuck in a treewell inside a wilderness area. Responders will come out on backcountry skis to get you, they won’t retrieve your sled.

State Land

Every state has some sort of public land management system, with varying degrees of complexity and oversight depending on how your state government is set up. I’ll use my home state of Colorado as an example. Here, we have the Colorado Department of Parks and Wildlife or CPW. Some states call their version of this a department of natural resources or share jurisdiction between a state fish and game agency and a DNR office. I would recommend spending a little time on your state’s website to learn more about your local management structure.

Here in Colorado, CPW manages a huge swath of state parks and state wildlife areas. They also manage all game species, implement hunter education, enforce local law, and more. There are a few key distinctions between our state parks and state wildlife areas. Both require some sort of fee typically to use. In state parks, there is typically an entrance fee. For wildlife areas, you must carry either a fishing or small game hunting license. This is because the funding structure of Colorado’s state land is primarily supported by tag, license, and tax revenue from recreational firearm and archery shooters.

A wooden sign indicating where each trail starts and a black lab dog in a red jacket waiting patiently for guidance on where to go next

Trailhead to Mt Harvard and Mt Columbia. Photo by Talia Peterson

County/City Land

Similar to state land, local governments may manage recreational land. Using our area again as an example, our county governments manage pretty large parks and open spaces, with Jefferson County and City and the County of Denver being some of the biggest systems. A lot of our parks here do not charge an entrance fee. They occasionally require a parking fee, but there are a lot of regulations to keep up on.

For a lot of the trail systems here, there are time and directional restrictions on hiking and biking designed to minimize conflicts between user groups. Certain trails, for example, will be bike only on certain days of the week, and some will be downhill only for bikes.

I highly encourage checking out your local governments for details on the land they may manage, and the recreational opportunities that may provide. From outreach programs, youth outdoor rec, bike clinics, and more, a lot of local parks can be great for backyard adventures.

A black lab dog zipped up in a cozy sleeping bag while a hiker in a red jacket leans over a campfire in the background

USFS dispersed camping. Photo by Talia Peterson

The public land systems in the United States are so vast, the opportunities they provide can feel boundless. In navigating our land, just remember to do your homework before heading out. Respect the agencies that keep these areas open to us and keep on top of the regulations of the area you’ll be playing in. Keep the stoke high, and explore as much of our most precious resources as you can! If you need any advice on finding the right gear for your next adventure out into the wilderness, reach out to me or one of my fellow Camping & Hiking experts here on Curated for free, personalized advice.

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Written By
Talia Peterson
Talia Peterson
Camping & Hiking Expert
Conservation, Recreation, and Public Lands enthusiast I grew up in California and now get to play all of Colorado. I am absolutely in love with the West, and the grandeur of the Rockies. Growing up I was lucky to stay outside all the time- camping every summer, mountain biking the Seirras and explor...
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