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  Environmental Policy Issues

Management of National Parks and Public Lands
(Released July 2002)



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Review Article
Tongass National Forest, Alaska
Tongass National Forest, Alaska
The management of America's extensive system of national parks, monuments, forests, and public lands is an ongoing compromise between conservation and use. The multiple purposes for which these lands were designated include preservation of ecosystems and wildlife habitat, recreation, and commercial development. When these purposes conflict, they can ignite long-running Congressional and public debates over policy.

In general, national parks and monuments consider preservation to be their priority, and do not permit activities that harvest or remove resources, while public lands are devoted explicitly to commercial use such as mineral development, and national forest policy straddles the line between.

The federal government owns 655 million acres of land in the U.S., 29% of the total 2.3 billion acres. It administers its public lands through four agencies: the National Park Service (NPS), which runs the National Park System; the Forest Service (FS), which manages the National Forests; the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which manages public lands; and the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), which administers the National Wildlife Refuge System. National Monuments are assigned a managing agency at the time of their designation by the President. The Forest Service operates out of the Department of Agriculture, while the other three agencies are in the Department of the Interior.

National Parks

Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
The National Park System includes 56 parks that together contain 84 million acres of land, spanning terrains from forest to grassland to alpine to desert. These wilderness lands provide habitat for wildlife,

including endangered species, absorb pollution, and conserve ecosystems in their natural state. They are of intrinsic value to the public because of their scenic beauty and recreational opportunities, and to the scientific community because of their biological and geological features. National Parks are also important tourist attractions that stimulate local economies. Nearly 285 million visitors flock to the parks each year.

Two major issues currently affecting the national parks are funding for maintenance and use of motorized vehicles. Other ongoing issues include protection of the parks from habitat degradation due to land use in surrounding regions; administration of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, through which new park lands are acquired; creation and maintenance of heritage areas on non-federal land; and funding for anti-terrorism activities.

Maintenance costs for keeping the thousands of miles of roads, trails, bridges, and tunnels, thousands of buildings, and scores of water and waste systems in the National Parks in good condition have outstripped the maintenance budget for decades. The shortfall is attributed to years of under-funding, increased numbers of visitors, and the natural aging of structures. President Bush has requested funds from various sources over the next five years to eliminate the estimated $4.9 billion dollar maintenance backlog, and has requested a total of $663 million from Congress to cover all regular and deferred maintenance for the current year. He has also suggested that the Recreational Fee Demonstration Program, a temporary program that allowed the parks to charge visitor fees to defray expenses, should be extended for two more years and perhaps made permanent.

Snowmobiles in Yellowstone
Snowmobiles in Yellowstone
The use of motorized vehicles in the parks is a pivotal issue in the debate between conservation and use. The parks were created for the public to use and enjoy, but some contend that uses like snowmobiling and air tours are environmentally destructive and violate the preservation ethic. At issue is whether to reverse the current ban on snowmobiling in Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks and in the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway, and whether to ban air tours over all parks (a rule that would most notably affect Grand Canyon National Park, where these tours are extremely popular). The use of motorized personal watercraft such as jet skis was prohibited in national park areas in 2000 but is still under debate.

More information about National Park issues is available in the Congressional Research Service (CRS) Report, National Park Management and Recreation (June 19, 2002).

National Monuments

Unlike national parks, which are established by Congressional authority, national monuments are designated by Presidents to preserve historic landmarks or structures on federal lands. They are intended to be the smallest area necessary for the preservation of these landmarks. Development and some recreational activities, such as hunting and off-road vehicle use, are restricted in national monuments. They are managed by an organization selected by the President, typically the National Park Service, but sometimes the Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management. Over the years, Presidents have established 120 national monuments containing 70 million acres of land. However, Congress has abolished some of the monuments and converted most of the remaining acreage to other designations, such as national parks.

Sonoran Desert National Monument,

Sonoran Desert National Monument, Arizona.

During his time in office, President Clinton established 19 new monuments and expanded three others to set aside a total 5.9 million acres of land, a move that earned him praise from conservationists but also ignited debates over the degree of authority the President should possess to create new national monuments. Some felt that Clinton designated far larger tracts of land than were intended by the National Monuments rule, and criticized the lack of a requirement for environmental studies and lack of opportunity for public input in the monument creation process. Congressional debates are focusing on the creation process, funding for wildlife protection in national monuments, and regulation of mining and resource development in roadless areas.

President Bush has announced plans to establish a new national monument at San Rafael Swell in Utah, and also to sell Governors Island in New York for a nominal fee, opening the Governors Island National Monument to development.

For more information about National Monuments Policy, see the CRS Report, National Monument Issues (December 19, 2001).

National Forests

The National Forest system includes 155 national forests containing 188 million acres, and 20 national grasslands containing 4 million acres, mainly in the western United States. Created by acts of Congress, National Forests typically provide a balance of conservation and use activities, including outdoor recreation, livestock grazing, timber harvesting, watershed protection, and preservation of fish and wildlife habitats.

Idaho Panhandle National Forest
Idaho Panhandle National Forest
A major issue affecting National Forests is the appropriate level of timber harvesting for economic and fire safety purposes. Conflicts over clearcutting in the 1970s prompted the creation of the National Forest Management Act of 1976, but this law has been criticized as expensive and ineffective. The Clinton administration drafted new regulations that established ecological sustainability as the top priority for forest management. These regulations are under review by the current administration.

Severe forest fires swept through National Forests in 1994, 1996, and 2000. The current fire season is expected to be worse than usual; already more fires and more acres have burned on National Forest land than in 2000. Some blame the fires on forest density and large amounts of deadwood in the understory, and suggest that the forests should be thinned in order to prevent such fires in future. Others contend that repeated interference for timber harvesting is degrading the forest ecosystem. President Bush is considering expanding the fire control budget to $2 million.

Another issue is the building of forest roads. Roads provide access to recreation sites and allow timber harvesting and fire control, but they are expensive to build and maintain, and cause damage to the surrounding area during and after construction. The Clinton administration's Roadless Areas Rule, described in the CRS Report The National Forest System Roadless Areas Initiative (January 22, 2002), prohibited road construction and timber harvesting in 58.5 million acres of roadless National Forest land. The rule was intended to go into effect in March 2001, but President Bush delayed its implementation. Since then, interim policies have been established that largely reverse the original rule's approach, and the Bush administration has sought public comment on whether or how to amend the rule. It seems likely that road construction and other activities will occur in these areas in the future.

For more information on the National Forest system, see the CRS Report, Public (BLM) Lands and National Forests (June 14, 2002).

Public Lands

Economic activities generally take priority over preservation in the 262 million acres of federal land, and 700 million acres of subsurface mineral resources, that fall under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management. Most of this is rangeland in the western United States. Like the Forest Service, the BLM has a multiple-use, sustained-yield mandate that allows for energy development, timber harvesting, recreation, grazing, maintenance of wild horse and burro habitat and herds, preservation of cultural resources, mining, and fishing. The BLM operates a large-scale wildland fire management program, offers wild horses and burros for adoption, and supervises mineral operations on 56 million acres of Indian trust lands.


Wild burros on the range. Source:

Key issues for BLM lands include funding for land acquisition and land disposal. The agency is allowed to acquire land to protect threatened natural and cultural resources, increase opportunities for public recreation, and improve land management, and does so primarily through exchanges. The wording of the original public lands charter seemed to indicate that eventually the lands were intended to be conveyed to private owners. Congress debated this policy for years. Finally the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 (FLPMA) articulated the decision to retain the lands under federal ownership.

BLM lands generate revenues from the sale of livestock grazing permits, timber sales, and leases for mineral development. This money is divided among states, local entities, and the federal government according to a complicated set of rules.

For more about BLM lands, see the CRS Report, Federal Land Management Agencies: Background on Land and Resource Management (February 27, 2001).

Wilderness, Rivers, and Trails

The Fish and Wildlife Service manages 94 million acres of wilderness, including the National Wildlife Refuge System. These lands are primarily dedicated to wildlife and habitat preservation, especially migratory and endangered species. They allow limited hunting, recreational use, mining, and other activities. The National Wildlife Refuge System has been the subject of numerous debates over conflicting uses, specifically over grazing, energy extraction, power boat recreation, and motorized access.

National Wildlife Refuge

A National Wildlife Refuge wetland. Source:

In addition, the government administers three categories of wilderness with management duties divided among several federal agencies:

The National Wilderness Preservation System contains 104 million acres of wilderness. New wilderness areas are designated by Congress and are managed with the goal of protecting and preserving natural conditions. Construction of buildings and roads, and major development activities like timber harvesting, are prohibited.

The National Wild and Scenic Rivers System contains 11,292 miles of river. Rivers are added by Congressional designation or state nomination. Management aims to protect aesthetic, scenic, historic, archaeological, and scientific features of the river area, but allows road construction, hunting and fishing, and mining, with few restrictions.

Ice Age National Scenic Trail, Wisconsin
Ice Age National Scenic Trail, Wisconsin
The popular National Trails System includes 22 trails with a combined total of nearly 40,000 miles, that provide access to scenic and historic areas. The main intent of the trail system is to provide for the public's enjoyment and recreation. Motorized vehicles are prohibited from only one of the four classes of trails. Congress is considering expanding the trail system by adding National Discovery Trails as a new category of long distance trails, and the American Discovery Trail as the first coast-to-coast trail. Funding is a major issue for the National Trails System; construction and maintenance of the planned new trails may rely heavily on volunteers.

The Need for Compromise

Policies governing the management of national lands are not static, but shift according to current leadership and ideology. Many of President Clinton's approaches to wilderness management, for instance, favored conservation over use. The current administration generally places a higher priority on the rights of businesses and the public to use the land's resources, and has acted to delay or reverse a number of the policies that President Clinton established. Future administration of our nation's wilderness, forest, and rangelands can be expected to continue this balancing act, seeking to compromise between preservation and development.

Written by Heather E. Lindsay.