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.
|Tongass National Forest, Alaska|
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.
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,
| Yellowstone National Park,
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
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.
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.
|Snowmobiles in Yellowstone|
More information about National Park issues is available in the
Congressional Research Service (CRS) Report, National Park Management and
Recreation (June 19, 2002).
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, 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
For more information about National Monuments Policy, see the CRS
Report, National Monument Issues (December 19,
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.
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.
|Idaho Panhandle National Forest|
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,
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.
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
A National Wildlife Refuge wetland. Source:
In addition, the government administers three categories of wilderness
with management duties divided among several federal agencies:
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.
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.
| Ice Age National Scenic Trail,
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
Written by Heather E. Lindsay.