National Parks, National Forests, and Wilderness Areas

This week’s blog post comes to us from Julia, a Bucktails and Bass alumni, and monthly blog correspondent.  She writes about respecting the beauty and amazing resources we have in our National Parks, National Forests, and designated Wilderness Areas, by following guidelines in place to preserve and maintain these treasures. 

Julia B.


When it comes to unmanaged outdoor recreation, can there be too much of a good thing? It is undeniably thrilling to head out into the unknown with no rules and no need for a concrete plan, but when millions of Americans are seeking this sort of adventure, there need to be guidelines in place to protect the environment that people come to experience.

National Forests are known as “Land of Many Uses” and they are relatively unmanaged. Starting with the Forest Reserve Act of 1891, the national government began to buy private land in order to manage and protect the natural ecosystems, as they do today. National Forests have five purposes: timber production, water protection, wildlife protection, grazing, and outdoor recreation. The National Forest Service’s mission is “to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the Nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations.” The service definitely attempts to stay out of visitor’s way and stay true to the name “Land of Many Uses” by– in many cases– allowing backcountry camping without requiring check-ins with rangers or submitting travel plans. They are mostly concerned with keeping the land in good condition with minimal regulation and maximum freedom for visitors, in fact nearly half of their annual budget is spent on fighting forest fires; however, some rules are in place for a reason.  For example, National Forest trails can be harmed by the usage of OHVs, or Off-highway vehicles, like ATVs and snowmobiles. Land can also be harmed by extensive mushroom hunting, large numbers of horseback riders, or careless hikers who ignore the principles of Leave No Trace. For these reasons, National Forests can be a bit less reliably pristine or safe than a National Park where rangers abound and there are more rules in place.

National Parks generally exemplify managed recreation which, like unmanaged recreation, has pros and cons. Many National Parks require camping within specified and possibly even previously reserved campgrounds, which can be less interesting to ambitious outdoorsmen and women. However, National Parks are highly attended, so this measure is necessary and helpful in preserving as natural of an environment as possible with so many visitors. Other positive aspects of managed recreation in National Parks are the many educational programs, rangers, amenities, and easily accessible trails and campgrounds that make outdoor recreation possible for people of all ages and levels of interest or ability.  Getting more people outside and interested in nature is an incredibly important mission!

Julia took this photo at the Rocky Mountain National Park – it demonstrates efforts to increase accessibility at National Parks and minimize the impacts of the many visitors through the construction of paved trails

U.S. Wilderness Areas are another kind of federal land.  The areas are chosen from within land set aside for National Forests or Parks, and they are also available for recreation by the public.  A Wilderness Area is “an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions.” In a Wilderness Area, you cannot harvest timber, or operate any motorized vehicles (except in an emergency), unlike a National Forest. Bikes, chainsaws, trucks, cars, bulldozers, ATVs, helicopters, and other motorized equipment are not allowed. On the other hand, hunting is allowed. These restrictions are meant to prevent noticeable human presence and to protect the environment.

National Parks, National Forests, and Wilderness Areas all have different kinds of rules, made for specific reasons.  National Parks require well managed recreation because of the large number of annual visitors.  National Forests use minimal regulation to keep the environment in as good of condition as possible.  Wilderness Areas require rules to maintain an untouched condition.  These three cases demonstrate the reasons that entirely unmanaged recreation is unwise and harmful. So next time you go to pitch your tent wherever you want to, or you want to ride an ATV around on some trails, check the rules for the area you are visiting so that you help to preserve the landscape and continue the wonderful tradition of beautiful natural areas.