Our Vast Public Lands, Owned Equally by all Americans

There has been a lot of attention recently about Public Lands and where America is headed with the management of those lands. Further, anyone who recreates on Americas public lands is often exposed to unfamiliar terms and may not understand the differences. Following is a brief description to give you a working understanding of the differences and what that means to you.

Public Lands Differences

First, what are “Public Lands”? These are the lands that are owned “equally” by all Americans. There are 618 million acres of public land across the U.S., with a significant portion in Alaska and the western U.S. The total U.S. land base is 2.27 billion acres in size. These federal public lands are managed in trust for us, (citizens of the U.S.) by the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Park Service and the Wildlife Refuge System for current and future generations.

Front Country Public Lands

Front country Public Lands is not a commonly used term, but is generally any public lands that are relatively accessible by means such as motor vehicles, boats, bicycles, hiking, horseback and aircraft and are usually within a short distance of roads. Generally, these lands provide a multitude of recreational activities. Camping may be in developed or dispersed/undeveloped areas. Logging, grazing and mining are often permitted on these lands as well. These are often highly used areas where it is common to see other people and activities.

Back Country Public Lands

Back country is generally the area beyond what is Front country. Pretty vague, but accurate. There is no specific line or map designation where this starts or ends. Access is more challenging and is usually by a trail or cross-country travel and at a further distance from roads and trail heads. Access may be allowed by the same list as above, but with greater responsibility on the user as trails receive less maintenance. In addition, the safety and welfare of each recreationalist to care for themselves is increased. Camping is usually in dispersed sites. You would expect to see fewer people and activities than in the Front country.

Road-less Areas

Road-less Areas had their beginnings when Primitive Areas were established in the 1920’s. The idea was to preserve some lands in a road-less condition at a time when automobiles and road building was rapidly expanding. As time progressed, Road-less Areas have been challenged legally and politically as to which lands should remain or be opened. Currently, there is about 58 million acres of road-less forests. There is about 380,000 miles of roads on Forest Service lands. In comparison, the Interstate Highway system has about 47,000 miles of road.

Wilderness Areas

Unlike Front country and Backcountry, Wilderness areas are defined and receives that highest level of land protection. While some may get a “wilderness experience” in the Front country or Backcountry or a Park, true Wilderness is a specific geographic area and can only be established or “Designated” by an act of Congress. The Wilderness Act of 1964 put into law what is required to be a “Designated Wilderness”. It states how it will be managed and what modes of access or travel are acceptable. The Act requires that it be managed to protect its natural condition, where it is untrammeled by man. It is to maintain its primeval character, shaped by the forces of nature with man’s work substantially unnoticeable. The purposes will be to provide solitude, and escape from mechanized use and maintain historic uses.

Three more terms that you may hear. “Recommended Wilderness” is generally lands identified on Forest Plans or agency plans that recommend specific areas for Wilderness Designation by Congress. “Proposed Wilderness” is generally lands that have been submitted to Congress for Wilderness consideration, a step closer than recommended. However, these two terms can mean the same thing depending on the agency. Finally, “Wilderness Study Areas” or WSA’s are areas that are inventoried and undergoing the Wilderness review process. They are lands that should be managed to preserve the character or special attributes that made them a WSA.

Parks generally have defined geographic areas which are indicated on maps. The recreational uses within a Park are often highly regulated due to a significant amount of visitor use. There are 58 National Parks, and most are associated with a specific national treasure. Interestingly, some iconic National Parks like Yellowstone, Grand Teton and Glacier and others are NOT designated Wilderness. They are “recommended wilderness” but to date, Congress has not given them the additional level of protection.

Parks can be managed by a city, state, private or federal entity. The simplest definition comes from Wikipedia: A “Park” is an area of natural, semi-natural or planted space set aside for human enjoyment and recreation or for the protection of wildlife or natural habitats. It may consist of grassy areas, rocks, soil and trees, but may also contain buildings and other artifacts such as monuments, fountains or playground structures.

The vast majority of our public lands are managed under the multi-use designation that includes both the Front country and Backcountry. This allows for a multitude of activities to be offered on the majority of our Public Lands. Only about 3% of the lower 48 states land base is designated Wilderness.

Submitted by: Mack Long
Mission Valley BCH, BCH Montana, Education Chairman BCH of America