Various Types of Federal Land and What Can Be Done on Each

One of the joys in owning ranch property comes in the form of easy access to the many beautiful vistas of the American West. From sprawling forests to pristine coastlines to rugged canyons, the U.S. offers over 610 million acres of federally regulated public lands to enjoy the outdoors. However, not all of this federal land allows for the same type of usage. Depending on the agency that manages a stretch of land, the regulations dictating the types of recreation, agriculture, and resource extraction allowed may differ. Therefore, it’s important to know the distinct categories of lands and their usage restrictions when considering the purchase or utilization of a ranch property. Here is a list of the 4 major management agencies, the types of federal lands they regulate, and their general usage rules.

Bureau of Land Management Lands

With 248 million acres under its control, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) holds more land than any other agency. Unlike other agencies, the BLM often allows state offices to manage their land and set regulations. In general, BLM lands have a multiple-use focus, encouraging conservation, recreation, agriculture and resource extraction. Restrictions on hunting and off-road vehicle use are usually less stringent, allowing for motorized access by way of ATVs and snowmobiles. There are two tiers of BLM land:

Standard BLM Land

The majority of BLM land is made up of unnamed lowland desert, sagebrush steppe, and tundra, and is directed toward multiple uses. These lands generally have the least restrictions, but identifying standard BLM land can sometimes be challenging, as these lands are often not delineated on maps.

National Landscape Conservation System Land

A smaller percentage of BLM land is named and marketed to the public with the intention of conservation. Regulations may be stricter here than standard BLM land, but areas that fall within the National Landscape Conservation System category are generally well-marked and easily-identified via signs.

United States Forest Service Lands

The U.S Forest Service (USFS) manages 193 million acres of National Forests and Grasslands throughout the country. Some of these National Forests and National Grasslands include land identified as a National Monument or National Recreation Areas, each of which have their own regulations dictated by the USFS. That said, the USFS emphasizes a multiple-use mission similar to the BLM, often allowing recreation like camping and mountain biking as well as cattle grazing and resource extraction such as mining and logging. Many areas in National Forests offer off-road trails for motorized vehicles, including snowmobiles.

Of particular note — National Forests and Grasslands have significant acreage that is privately-owned. These properties, many of which may be ranch land, are generally not beholden to the same control and usage regulations that the USFS maintains over public portions.

United States Fish and Wildlife Service Lands

With the regulation of 89 million acres of land — the majority of which is located in Alaska — the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) maintains National Wildlife Refuges and national fish hatcheries. This agency generally establishes stricter regulations than those of the BLM or USFS, as their primary mission centers on conservation. Recreation opportunities are included in this mission, but numerous areas may have restricted access or stringent limits on fishing and hunting. The use of off-road vehicles like ATVs and snowmobiles is generally not allowed. Agriculture and resource extraction may occasionally be permitted, but only if the impacts on conservation measures are inconsequential.

National Park Service Lands

The National Park Service (NPS) governs 80 million acres of National Parks, National Monuments, National Recreation Areas, and a variety of preserves and watersheds. These lands can only be designated by Congress, and the NPS generally upholds the strictest regulations of the four agencies. Like FWS land, National Parks are dedicated to conservation, with a focus on minimal human impact. The difference here is that most NPS land further restricts recreational use, seldom allowing for hunting. Farming and resource extraction is usually banned. That said, there are a number of National Parks that allow for snowmobile use in the winter. In general, these snowmobiles must meet a Best Available Technology (BAT) standard, which limits the emissions, sound, and age of the snowmobile. There is usage variance from park to park, but it’s particularly important to check the particulars with National Park lands.

A note on Wilderness Areas

Similar to National Parks, Wilderness Areas are established through Congress. These areas, however, are not necessarily governed by a single entity; any of the four major agencies may manage Wilderness Areas, depending on their location. These lands have varying regulations, but usually lean toward the more restrictive mission of conservation. Access is usually limited to non-motorized methods, with motorized vehicles such as 4×4 trucks and snowmobiles not allowed.

Whether you own or are seeking to purchase ranch property within or near federal land, or are simply looking to visit any of the beautiful landscapes therein, it’s wise to understand and double-check regulations with the governing agency before enjoying or utilizing its land. As ranchers and stewards of the wild, we at Ranch Marketing Associates are well versed in all of these federal regulations. We have the expertise to assure you that any plans you have with a new or long-held property are within the law and achievable. We also offer ranch management services to ensure that these plans are well laid and carried out. Contact us today and learn how we can guide you to your dream ranch.

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