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The Federal Lands Name Game

Throughout this guide, you'll read about America's most spectacular public lands, most designated as national parks and managed by the National Park Service (NPS). But you will also learn about national monuments, historical parks, and other public lands, also run by the NPS, as well as areas managed by other agencies. So what's in a name?

Although Yellowstone, America's first national park, was established by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1872, President Theodore Roosevelt is generally credited with spearheading the movement to preserve America's most beautiful scenic areas as public lands in the early 1900s. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed an act creating the National Park Service as a division of the U.S. Department of the Interior. Today the NPS includes nearly 400 areas of public land covering more than 84 million acres in every state (except Delaware), as well as in Washington, D.C., and American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands.

These NPS properties go by a variety of names. Generally, a national park is the best of the NPS properties, covering a fairly large area and containing a variety of attributes. Traditionally, these parks have been set aside to be preserved and visited by the public, so mining, oil and gas drilling, hunting, cattle grazing, and other activities that would change the areas are not permitted. National monuments, which many consider "junior" national parks, are usually smaller and with fewer attractions than national parks; they still must include at least one feature considered nationally significant, and they are often managed with similar practices to national parks. National preserves, which are sometimes adjacent to national parks, are like national parks, except that they often allow mineral exploration, hunting, and other activities prohibited in national parks.

There are also national historic sites, which usually contain a single historical place of note; national historical parks, which include more than one historic site; national memorials, which are designated to commemorate a historic event or person; and national battlefields, which contain the sites of historic battlefields, usually from the Revolutionary or Civil wars. The NPS's 14 national cemeteries are significant historic cemeteries that mostly date to the Civil War era and are not the same as the national cemeteries managed by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs that contain the graves of more recent military veterans as well as veterans from earlier times.

National recreation areas are lands set aside primarily for recreation, such as boating or hiking; and national seashores, lakeshores, rivers, and wild rivers are usually scenic areas that include water sports and related activities. A national trail is a long-distance scenic or historic hiking trail, and a national parkway is a roadway through a scenic area.

Other departments and agencies also administer federal lands. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), a separate division of the Department of the Interior, manages a lot of public land, almost always as multiple-use areas where recreation, cattle grazing, mining, and oil or gas drilling can go on side by side. While many national monuments are managed by the National Park Service, some are under the BLM. Another division of the Department of the Interior is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages America's national wildlife refuges. In addition, national forests, which abound throughout the American West, are under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. National Forests are also multiuse areas but often have a greater emphasis on recreation than BLM areas. Maybe that's because they usually have more trees!

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.