Public Lands 101: What Are They?

What are Public Lands?

Public Lands are areas of land and water that are "owned" by the citizens of the United States and managed by government agencies.

There are many different kinds of public lands, and each kind of public land has different rules, usages, and reasons for being protected for use.

Who Manages Public Lands?

Federal public lands are managed by a handful of different departments and agencies of the federal government.

    • National Park Service (NPS)
    • Forest Service (USFS)
    • Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS)
    • Bureau of Land Management (BLM)
    • Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA)
    • Bureau of Reclamation (BoR)
    • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
    • Army Corps of Engineers (ACoE)

What are the different kinds of public land?

Different kinds of land receive different kinds of designations that protect them for recreation and conservation. There are also lands that are preserved for wildlife, cultural significance and to protect a sensitive ecosystem. Lastly there are some lands that are managed for commercial uses such as mining, logging, grazing, energy development.

Different designations have different management rules, which changes how and when the public can access that land, and how the agencies manage that land.

These definitions are quoted from a pdf available from

National Parks

Managed by NPS to preserve the natural and cultural resources of an area and to provide for the enjoyment of the area and its resources for future generations. This should NOT be confused with National Forests.

National Forests and Grasslands

Managed by USFS to provide for multiple uses and sustained yield of products and services, including timber, recreation, range, watersheds, and fish and wildlife.

National Wildlife Refuges

Managed by USFWS for the conservation, management, and restoration of fish, wildlife, and plant resources and their habitats. Wildlife-dependent recreation in refuges is facilitated where compatible.

National Conservation Lands

Managed by BLM and designated to conserve, protect, enhance, and manage public lands for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations.

National Historic Sites and Parks

Managed by NPS to recognize an area of national historic significance.

National Marine Sanctuaries

Managed by NOAA for the nation’s system of marine protected areas, to conserve, protect, and enhance their biodiversity, ecological integrity, and cultural legacy.

National Monuments

Managed by NPS, USFWS, BLM, and/ or USFS (in some cases, may be managed jointly). Designated by Congress or the President to protect objects or areas of natural, historic, or scientific interest.

National Recreation Areas

Managed by NPS, BLM, or USFS for conservation and recreation purposes; designated for a specific purpose and may have other values that contribute to public enjoyment.

National Scenic and Historic Trails

Managed by BLM, NPS, and USFS as part of the National Trails System; National Historic Trails trace the routes of historically significant events, while National Scenic Trails are longer trails managed for recreation that pass through especially scenic and significant areas.

Wild and Scenic Rivers

Managed by NPS, USFWS, BLM, or USFS to preserve outstanding natural, cultural, and recreational values; protected in a free-flowing condition for the enjoyment of present and future generations.


Managed by NPS, USFWS, BLM, or USFS based on the lack of noticeable human impact, outstanding recreation opportunities, and other historic, ecological, scientific, and education value of the land. Wilderness is designated by Congress and limits commercial activity, motorized equipment, and mechanized travel or tools, making it the most protective designation.

Wilderness Study Areas

Land set aside for wilderness designation; managed to ensure the land is unimpaired for preservation until Congress designates it as wilderness or releases the land for other uses.

motorcycle camping in public lands

What does that mean for me as a Motorcycle Camper?

It is very important to be aware that not all public lands will have infrastructure that allows camping, dispersed camping or motorized use.

As Motorcycle Campers the kinds of lands that matter most to us in general are National Forest, National Park, National Monuments, National Grasslands, National Recreation Areas, BLM Land, Army Corps of Engineers Sites and some Wilderness Study Areas.

Each of these kinds of public lands have their own rules intended to protect those areas for future enjoyment. While some areas of National Forests, Grasslands, Recreation Areas and BLM do allow Dispersed Camping, not all of them do. Which means it is equally important to know what kind of land you’re on. 

The US Geological Survey has a Map that shows Public Land Boundaries.

onX Offroad also shows clearly the boundary between public lands, and private land, as well as what kind of public land you’re on.


 Use this affiliate link to get 20% off a Premium Subscription to always know what kind of land you’re on.

If you want to learn more about dispersed camping, read our official guide to disperssed motorcycle camping here.


Cold Weather Gear

View all
Jetboil | Genesis Basecamp systemJetboil | Genesis Basecamp system
Jetboil | Genesis Basecamp system
Sale price$399.95
Only 1 unit left
Jetboil | Genesis Basecamp StoveJetboil | Genesis Basecamp Stove
Jetboil | Genesis Basecamp Stove
Sale price$279.95
Only 1 unit left
Klim | Boulder Stretch Down JacketKlim | Boulder Stretch Down Jacket
Klim | Boulder Stretch Down Jacket
Sale price$279.99
In stock, 17 units
Choose options
Big Agnes | Camp Boss Insulated PantsBig Agnes | Camp Boss Insulated Pants
Big Agnes | Camp Boss Insulated Pants
Sale price$179.95
In stock, 5 units
Choose options
Big Agnes | Men's Shovelhead Down JacketBig Agnes | Men's Shovelhead Down Jacket
Big Agnes | Men's Shovelhead Down Jacket
Sale price$269.95
In stock, 8 units
Choose options
Garmin | Motorcycle/ATV Mount Kit with Power Cable for Montana 7XX
Klim | Sundance Jacket | Women'sKlim | Sundance Jacket | Women's
Klim | Sundance Jacket | Women's
Sale price$99.99
In stock, 7 units
Choose options
Klim | Inferno PantKlim | Inferno Pant
Klim | Inferno Pant
Sale price$99.99
In stock, 10 units
Choose options
Klim | Inferno JacketKlim | Inferno Jacket
Klim | Inferno Jacket
Sale price$99.99
In stock, 7 units
Choose options