Public Lands vs. National Parks—What’s the Difference?

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This year, National Public Lands Day is celebrated on September 22. This provides an excellent opportunity to discuss the important differences between two similar types of natural space: public lands and national parks. If you’ve ever wondered about this confusing distinction, this is an opportunity for outdoor education.


U.S. Public Lands

Public lands are national parks, national forests, national monuments, national wildlife refuges, and more. All fifty American states have a type of public land—whether that’s a state park or state forest or national monument.


National Parks

National parks are public lands that have the mission to preserve and protect unique places across the country. Sometimes these parks protect wilderness areas and their amazing views; other times, they protect what remains of ancient civilizations or historical sites. Sometimes, they can even serve to protect a type of plant or animal.

So, the primary difference between U.S. public lands and national parks is both simple and complicated: a national park is a public land, but a public land is not always a national park.


Why the Distinction is Important

The National Park Service, under the U.S. Department of the Interior, utilizes national parks to understand how ecosystems respond to high use by humans, as well as how human use can change populations. In national parks, you aren’t likely to see timber harvesting or hunting, but you might see this if you’re traveling in a national forest. This happens because public lands are not always run by the National Park Service. Instead, they are run by separate agencies, which may have varying missions.

While the purpose of a national park is to preserve the resources and beauty therein, public lands are sometimes at risk. Though the U.S. Forest Service does what it can to protect these “multiple use” lands, timber companies and similar entities lobby for equal use. It is therefore essential to remain knowledgeable of the threats to your nearby public land—in Idaho or beyond.