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Public Lands

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By John G. Mitchell Photographs by Melissa Farlow

With a quarter billion acres (100 million hectares) of fragile western rangeland to ride herd on—and a stampede of off-road enthusiasts—the U.S. Bureau of Land Management struggles to live up to its name.

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This is a story about a part of America hardly anyone knows. People who think they know from hearsay picture a bone-dry landscape puckered with sagebrush and tumbleweed. But that’s not even the half of it, for there are snowcapped mountains here and lonely beaches at the edge of the sea and evergreen rain forests and meadows as bright with blossoms as a bride’s bouquet. This is the part of Uncle Sam’s public domain, your land and mine, that embraces a patrimony almost one-eighth the size of the United States: a quarter billion federal acres (100 million hectares) that are not under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, or the U.S. Forest Service—but of an understaffed, underbudgeted, underappreciated agency known by its narcoleptic initials, the BLM.

The B-L-what?” I overheard a tourist ask in a Colorado restaurant last year.

The Bureau of Land Management,” her companion explained. “It’s in the Department of the Interior. Some people call it the Bureau of Livestock and Mining.”


“Because,” he said with a bit of a sneer, “that’s just about all they do.”

There was a time, and not so long ago at that, when licensing commerce on the public lands did appear to be the agency’s primary mission; when timber sales, grazing permits, and mineral leases were administered in a user-friendly way. In recent years, however, the agency’s values and priorities took a decided shift. While cattlemen and miners were still accommodated on much of the BLM’s land, they could no longer count on setting the agency’s full agenda, for the agency was busy learning the three R’s—recreation, range restoration, and resource conservation. And some of its most spectacular or sensitive areas were declared off-limits to resource development, while others were designated units of a new National Landscape Conservation System. The system was established last summer at the behest of then Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt.

So what exactly does this made-over agency manage apart from the timber, grass, and minerals on its one-eighth of the United States? Among a variety of land and water resources, the standouts include:
  • Fifteen national monuments, all but one of them designated during President Clinton’s last term in office and each as physically distinct from the others as any 15 of the most popular parks in the National Park System.

  • Fourteen congressionally authorized national conservation areas with inherent protections almost as tight as those of the monuments.

  • One hundred forty-eight units of the National Wilderness Preservation System and more than 600 other areas under study for possible wilderness designation.

  • Two thousand miles of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System, 4,200 miles of the National Historic and Scenic Trails Systems, and 3,500 miles of scenic roads designated national back country byways.
But despite the bureau’s growing reputation as a provider of recreation and protector of special areas, the agency and its lands continue to suffer from an identity problem.

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VIDEO Photographer Melissa Farlow talks about Nevada’s Burning Man Festival and other uses—and perhaps abuses—of public lands. Click Here

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Final Edit
The one that got away from our coverage of public lands is this month’s Final Edit.

Developers, ranchers, conservationists, and recreationists all want a piece of public lands, but can they share responsibly? Join the discussion.

Get close to nature with this month’s wallpaper.

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

The Bureau of Land Management has only 8,700 employees, yet it administers 264 million acres (100 million hectares) of public land. Fortunately for the BLM as many as 20,000 private citizens offer to help the bureau every year, donating about one million hours of their own time. As demands on the public lands in the West have increased, so have the roles of these volunteers. They have helped conduct dinosaur excavations, monitor wilderness study areas, restore ecosystems, record locations of ancient petroglyphs, and much more. The value of the volunteers’ contributions is estimated to be at least $15 million a year.

—Cate Lineberry

About 50,000 wild horses and burros roam the United States— public lands. They are descendants of animals that escaped from or were released by Spanish explorers, miners, ranchers, soldiers, and Native Americans. Every year the Bureau of Land Management rounds up nearly 10,000 horses and burros for adoption. People interested in adopting these animals must apply and meet the necessary qualifications. After the application is approved, it costs only $125 to adopt a horse and $75 for a burro. Adoptions take place several times a year at sites throughout the country, on the Internet, and via special televised adoptions. Horses and burros not adopted are released onto retirement ranges where they live out their natural lives.

—Marisa Larson

Bureau of Land Management
Learn more about the Bureau of Land Management and how it administers 264 million acres (100 million hectares) of America’s public domain.

BLM Wild Horse and Burro Program
Discover the beauty of wild horses and burros and learn how to adopt them.

Steens Mountain Wilderness
Explore the ecological diversity of one of the largest fault-block mountains in North America.

Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument
Discover the splendor of this million-acre (400,000-hectare) monument.

Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument
Learn more about the complex geology and multiple ecoregions of this unique area.

Canyons of the Ancients National Monument
Investigate the monument with the highest known density of archaeological sites in the nation.


Green, Stewart M. Bureau of Land Management: Back Country Byways. Falcon Press Publishing Co, 1991.

Muhn, James, and Hanson R. Stuart. Opportunity and Challenge: The Story of BLM. U.S. Department of the Interior, September 1988.

Rohrbough, Malcom J. The Land Office Business: The Settlement and Administration of American Public Lands, 1789-1837. Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1990.

Tisdale, Mary E., and Bibi Booth. Beyond the National Parks: A Recreation Guide to Public Lands in the West. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998.


Darlington, David. “Taking the Dry Road,” National Geographic Adventure (March/April 2001), 34-36, 38.

Cederborg, Julie. “6 Stellar Hikes: New, Unheralded Trails—From Hells Backbone to Hole-in-the-Wall,” National Geographic Adventure (May/June 2000), 54-55.

Kingsolver, Barbara. “The Patience of a Saint: San Pedro River,” National Geographic (April 2000), 80-97.

Willoughby, Scott. “The Adventure 100,” National Geographic Adventure (March/April 2000), 76-102.

Pritchard, Paul C. Enduring Treasures: National Parks of the World. National Geographic Books, 2000.

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Ehrlich, Gretel. John Muir: Nature’s Visionary. National Geographic Books, 2000.

National Geographic’s Guide to the National Parks of the United States. National Geographic Books, 1997.

Busch, Richard. “Help for Our National Parks,”National Geographic Traveler (July/August 1997), 10.

Chapple, Steve. “The Yellowstone, The Last Best River,” National Geographic (April 1997), 56-77.

National Parks Collector’s Edition, National Geographic Traveler (1994).

Thybony, Scott. Canyon Country Parklands: Treasures of the Great Plateau. National Geographic Books, 1993.

Watkins, T.H., and others. America’s Hidden Treasures: Exploring Our Little-Known National Parks. National Geographic Books, 1992.

Newman, Cathy, and Paul C. Pritchard. "The Best Idea America Ever Had," National Geographic (August 1991), 36-59.

Kirkpatrick, Katherine A., and others. Adventures in Your National Parks. National Geographic Books, 1988.

Melham, Tom, and others. Alaska’s Magnificent Parklands. National Geographic Books, 1984.

Leydet, François. “Coal vs. Parklands,” National Geographic (December 1980), 776-803.

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Ellis, William S., “Ageless Splendor of Our Oldest National Park,” National Geographic (May 1972), 604-615.

Wirth, Conrad L. “The Mission Called 66: Today in Our National Parks,” National Geographic (July 1966), 6-47.

Wirth, Conrad L. “Heritage of Beauty and History: Want a Live Volcano? Dinosaur Bones? Buffaloes? Sequoia Forest? Americans Own These and Much More—in the National Parks,” National Geographic (May 1958), 587-661.


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