It is not only visitors to the American West who can be confused by the multitude of categories of public lands: National Park, National Forest, National Monument, Bureau of Land Management, Wilderness Area, Wildlife Refuge, Recreation Area and more. More than half of the land in the eleven contiguous Western states is in the public domain, managed by cities, counties, states, or the federal government.

With Arizona ranking sixth in the United States and 57 percent of its land in the public domain, it is worth understanding some of the basic land designations we are most likely to encounter. A full catalog of land designations and managing agencies could quickly become overwhelming, but some basic knowledge helps in understanding the opportunities that surround us.

Public lands are managed by a variety of agencies, each with its own objectives and policies for the use and care of the land. By far the largest is the federal government, managing around 610 million acres of public land, or about 28 percent of United States territory.
There are four primary federal land holders. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) holds 10.5 percent of all land in the country, almost entirely located in Alaska and the Western states. The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) manages 8.5 percent of the country, mostly in the West. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) overseas 3.9 percent and the National Park Service (NPS) 3.7 percent.

Most state and federally managed public lands are open for recreational use. The nature of recreation opportunity varies by agency and land designation. Public land characteristics run the gamut from the less restrictive, undeveloped wide-open spaces of BLM lands to the highly developed and controlled national and state parks.

National parks are created by Congress to offer public recreation while protecting land of natural, historical, or cultural value for future generations. The NPS manages 60 National Parks as well as 400 other units across the country such as cemeteries, battlefields, and historic buildings. Arizona’s three national parks are Grand Canyon, Saguaro and Petrified Forest.

National monuments are designated by U.S. Presidents or Congress on federally owned land and are managed by any of the four federal agencies. The primary difference between national parks and monuments is in the reason for preserving the land. National parks are expanses of land protected due to their scenic, inspirational, education, and recreational value. National monuments have specific historical, cultural, and/or scientific interest. Nearby examples of Arizona’s 21 national monuments are Tuzigoot, Montezuma Castle and Sunset Crater.

National forest is another designation of protected and managed federal land. Forests are managed by the USFS under a multiple use objective. In addition to recreation, lumber, grazing, and mineral extraction are allowed under permit programs. National forests have a mix of maintained trails and roads, wilderness and undeveloped portions, and developed picnic and camping areas. National forests may be divided into Districts, such as the Red Rock District within the Coconino National Forest which surrounds most of Sedona.
Bureau of Land Management land, the largest federal land category, is managed for multiple uses, primarily leasing land for grazing, petroleum, mineral and timber extraction. Significant recreation opportunities are focused within the portions of BLM land designated as Natural Conservation Areas. The Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, notable for Paria Canyon and Coyote Buttes, is an example of BLM managed land.

Wilderness is a designation established by Congress to protect pristine wild land. It is the highest level of protection for federally managed public lands and covers more than 760 designated areas. Ten wilderness areas lie within or partially within the Coconino National Forest, including Red Rock-Secret Mountain, Fossil Springs, and Sycamore Canyon. Mountain biking and motorized recreation are not permitted in wilderness areas.

Several federal land designations are specific to water resources. Wild and scenic rivers preserve free-flowing rivers and surrounding land in their natural state. A portion of the Verde River is in the Wild and Scenic River System. National recreation areas surround reservoirs and lakes such as the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.

All states have land under state management for public uses. Arizona manages 34 State Parks, State Historic Parks, State Natural Areas and State Recreation Areas. Examples in our area are Slide Rock and Red Rock State Parks, the Verde River Greenway State Natural Area and Jerome State Historic Park.

City and county parks, such as Posse Grounds Park in Sedona and Windmill Park in Cornville, should not be forgotten in the list of public lands in our area.

Detailed information about the opportunities for enjoying our vast public lands is available on the websites of any of the managing agencies.

Author – Jennifer Young