This article is meant as a primer on public lands on how they are used for hunting.
This is by no means an exhaustive explanation as it would require deep dives into complex regulations, and would require years of history lessons and legal classes to fully understand how different lands and agencies interact.
We’re going to give you a high-level overview and the major mechanisms on what you need to know regarding public lands, who owns them, what kind of activities you can enjoy with them, and the role hunters play in wildlife conservation.
There are two types of public land that hunters can hunt on: federal land and state-owned land.
First, we’ll discuss federal land and then we’ll go into state-owned land.
There are 4 different federal agencies that manage public land. There’s a myriad of federal public land (wilderness, forests, parks, wetlands, etc.) but they are all managed by these 4 agencies:
- Bureau of Land Management (Dept. of Interior)
- National Park Service (Dept. of Interior)
- Fish and Wildlife Service (Dept. of Interior)
- U.S. Forest Service (Dept. of Agriculture)
Most of the land that hunters interact with is managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service.
We generally don’t worry about National Parks (although you can hunt in designated parks for wildlife habitat management purposes) or the Fish and Wildlife Service.
These latter agencies are primarily focused on maintaining specific types of land in their natural state without interference from people, and generally don’t allow hunting on their land.
So, from here on out when we refer to federal public land, we’re primarily referring to either BLM Lands or National Forests.
How did these agencies come to be?
This might seem like a mundane question, but I assure you it’s MUCH more interesting than it seems and very relevant for our purposes here.
After the U.S. had expanded to the Pacific Ocean (manifest destiny!) industry moved westward and started using the land for commercial purposes.
As settlers expanded into the new territories, commercial hunting and trapping became big business in the west.
Simultaneously, homesteaders didn’t want a good portion of the land in the west for farming/establishing towns because great swaths of the land were very arid and not ideal for farming.
So, despite tin foil hat conspiracies, the government didn’t take the unwanted land…
…rather it ended up falling into the responsibility of the Federal Government because no one wanted it.
Additionally, as the U.S. rapidly industrialized, one of the biggest fears was that the U.S. would end up becoming one massive megalopolis…
…with humans occupying every square inch of land like in Western Europe.
How so, exactly?
Well, in the sense that every acre of land would be developed or inhabited by humans… with very little wildland existing anymore!
This is when Teddy Roosevelt moved in, busted up trusts, and conserved roughly 230 million acres of land that couldn’t be used for development.
These lands became our land for the public to enjoy!
This is why most federal public lands exist out West and very little in the east.
So, as the country was expanding, Teddy Roosevelt saw it as his duty to preserve the land for future generations to benefit from it… unlike in Western Europe where national parks pale in comparison.
This is the legacy that we all benefit from today when we hunt and explore our U.S. public lands.
Teddy Roosevelt’s feelings can be summed up best in this quote: “I recognize the right and duty of this generation to develop and use the natural resources of our land; but I do not recognize the right to waste them, or to rob, by wasteful use, the generations that come after us.”
This is also why we have a map of Federal land ownership that’s a little one-sided.
As you can see…
The Federal Government is BY FAR the largest land manager in the West.
America is unique in that all people have the right to enjoy public land in many ways!
So, in order to manage all these hundred-million acres of land, agencies had to be created and programs had to be adopted in order to fund the management of these lands.
Fast forward to today…
After a few agency creations, agency mergers, program creations, and distribution proceedings, we have the current four agencies managing these federal lands.
Bureau of Land Management
BLM is one of nine bureaus under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of the Interior, and it manages the most acreage of lands throughout the country (roughly 245 million acres, or 10% of America’s land base).
BLM is responsible for managing its own lands and does so for multiple purposes.
Among these are energy independence, Off-Highway Vehicles (OHV), and…
You guessed it…
Now, just because you find BLM… does not necessarily mean you can just go hunt there.
Sidenote: you can go to BLM.gov to find BLM land near you.
Once you have found BLM land, contact your local BLM office to determine how you may use that land.
Some parcels of land may be managed for different uses and have its own restrictions.
U.S. Forests and Wilderness Areas
Then there are U.S National Forests (not to be confused with National Parks.)
National Forests are managed by the U.S. Forest Service which is a program under the Department of Agriculture.
National Forests are also managed for multiple uses, and a lot of them have their own restrictions.
You can go to fs.fed.us to find National Forests near you.
Once you have found a National Forest, check with your local office to verify that hunting is allowed there and inquire about any special restrictions they might have in the area.
Most BLM and NF have roads cut through them to allow vehicles and bicycles to pass through.
Just make sure you stay on the roads.
Some National Forest service areas have been designated as Wilderness Areas.
Wilderness areas were established by the Wilderness Act of 1964, which also instigated the National Wildlife Preservation System.
Wilderness areas are unique because different wilderness areas are managed by all four federal agencies.
According to the Wilderness Act, a wilderness area is defined as follows:
“An area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain. An area of wilderness is further defined to mean in this Act 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 and which (1) generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable; (2) has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation; (3) has at least five thousand acres of land or is of sufficient size as to make practicable its preservation and use in an unimpaired condition; and (4) may also contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value.”
Essentially, it’s untouched and wild AF.
Wilderness areas may have a road leading to a trailhead, or have roads running parallel to the border of the wilderness area.
However, Wilderness areas will not have a road going through it, and will not allow any wheeled device (that includes a game cart) through them.
Due to their lack of accessibility with trucks and vehicles, fewer people hunt very deeply into these areas.
This makes wilderness areas a great place to hunt, as long as you understand you will only have your backpack to get the meat out!
Funding of Public Lands
So the question that inevitably arises when public land is discussed is: “Who pays for it?”
The short answer is…
We all do, but some pay more than others.
We, as hunters, front proportionally more of the bill for public lands, through the Pittman-Robertson Act of 1937, as well as the fees associated with hunting licenses and tags.
Through the Pittman-Robertson Act, hunters pay an 11% excise tax on all long guns, ammunition, and archery equipment.
In 1970 the act was amended to include a 10% tax on handguns.
The money generated from the Pittman-Robertson Act is distributed to states based partially on the area of the state, and how many hunting licenses are purchased in each state.
That money can be used in a number of different ways, and it often has strings attached.
One of the ways the money is used is to provide and manage hunting land for public use.
If you see public land that allows hunting, it is likely because of the Pittman-Robertson Act.
On occasion, when I am out hunting, I will come across mountain bikers or backpackers who are not happy to see me hunting on public land.
I can understand people’s reactions to this, especially if they have never hunted and guns make them uncomfortable.
Their reaction may be a little short-sighted.
The whole point of public land is that it’s… PUBLIC!
Which means everyone, and I don’t take that lightly.
Chances are, these individuals don’t understand that those taxes on hunting gear, licenses, and tags are the primary funding mechanisms with which the land is maintained.
There is also the chance that they don’t want to hear it, at which point you can gracefully exit the conversation with a “Hail fellow well met, good tidings on your travels,” and be on your way.
I am happy to share the land with them.
It’s ours after all.
I have found many of them are not happy to share the land with me.
It’s our duty to allow them to enjoy the land as much as we are.
To figure out where you can find these lands, check out our article on how to find public and private land.
But for now, consider your options.
Do you have private property (or a family member or close friend with private property) that you can hunt on?
Is leasing private property an option, or are you a public land hunter?
I have hunted both private and public land.
I have found public land has the least amount of strings attached, but it may also have more competition.
The holy grail is private property where no one else is allowed to hunt and there is very little competition.
There are state lands, and some states have more land than others.
Typically, the states will have large tracts of state parks that allow hunting for conservation purposes.
To find out about state lands, it is a good idea to check with your local Fish and Wildlife agency to determine if you have state lands that allow hunting.
You can also read our article about [finding state land to hunt] for more information.
State-owned lands are a different animal altogether.
There is a constant tension between the states and federal government with regards to the states wanting to own more of the land for their own purposes.
There are many reasons states want more land, but they typically come back to wanting to own the land for mining rights, cattle lease rights, energy rights, or development rights (i.e. it comes down to the states wanting more income.)
These tensions are felt more acutely in the West because the federal government (i.e. the public) is the largest landowner in the west, and is the majority landowner in Nevada, Utah, Oregon, Idaho, and Alaska.
This can become an issue for outdoorsmen, because when the federal government sells its land (i.e. our land) to a state like Utah for energy development, the outdoorsmen have lost the ability to use the land for hunting, fishing, camping, etc.
This can be a very hot button issue for people on both sides of the argument, and the purpose of bringing it up here is not to convince you of who’s right or wrong.
The purpose of bringing it up is so that new hunters, and experienced hunters alike, fully understand the backdrop that hunters and outdoorsman play in the wider scope of public lands.
One final thought on this subject: access to public lands.
If you look at a parcel map, you will often see that public land and private land are divided into even squares that resemble a checkerboard.
This checkerboard pattern goes back to the building of the railroad when the lands were given based on how much track the railroads laid.
It is your responsibility as a hunter to know what land you’re on and if you can hunt on it.
Buy a map and watch your boundaries!