Management of Designated Areas


Although designations vary, federally designated areas unique for their special characteristics and the opportunities they offer. “National Conservation Lands” include Wilderness and Wild and Scenic Rivers, as well National Historic Landmarks, National Volcanic Monuments, National Historic Scenic Areas, National Recreation Areas, Scenic Recreation Areas, National Scenic Areas, National Preserves, and National Monuments.

This page offers descriptions of the management focuses of these areas, highlights responsible agencies, and provides maps or lists of these sites when they are available. Other special use areas, be they derived from state, local, or programmatic agency designations are not detailed in this section, but may offer similar opportunities to align a land trust’s conservation goals with neighboring management objectives.

Wilderness Areas 

The uses of wilderness include protection of air and watersheds; maintenance of soil and water quality, ecological stability, plant and animal gene pools, protection of archaeological and historical sites, habitat for wildlife; and livestock grazing. Wilderness provides opportunities for outdoor recreation including hunting, fishing, hiking, horseback riding, and camping. Wilderness also provides for the exercise of  valid existing rights such as water rights, mining claims, mineral leases, and rights-of-way. Learn more about prohibited and permitted uses.

Wilderness is managed by four Federal agencies: the Bureau of Land Management, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Forest Service, and the National Park Service. Of the 156 National Wild and Scenic Rivers, the most are managed by the U.S. Forest Service, followed by the National Park Service. Thirty-eight are managed under the BLM’s National Landscape Conservation System while the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages several rivers in Alaska. A map of Wilderness areas and their managing agencies is available here.

Wild and Scenic Rivers

The National Wild and Scenic Rivers System was to preserve rivers with outstanding natural, cultural, and recreational values in a free-flowing condition for the enjoyment of present and future generations.

Rivers are classified as wild, scenic, or recreational.

Wild River Areas – Rivers or sections of rivers that are free of impoundments and generally inaccessible except by trail, with watersheds or shorelines essentially primitive and waters unpolluted.

Scenic River Areas – Rivers or sections of rivers that are free of impoundments, with shorelines or watersheds still largely primitive and shorelines largely undeveloped, but accessible in places by roads.

Recreational River Areas – Rivers or sections of rivers that are readily accessible by road or railroad, that may have some development along their shorelines, and that may have undergone some impoundment or diversion in the past.

Regardless of classification, each river in the National System is administered with the goal of protecting and enhancing the values that caused it to be designated. reports that as of December 2014, the National System contains 12,709 miles of 208 rivers in 39 states and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico; this is less than one-quarter of one percent of the nation’s rivers. View a map of designated rivers by state here.

National Historic Landmarks (NHLs)

National Historic Landmarks (NHLs) are historic places that possess exceptional value in commemorating or illustrating the history of the United States.  The National Park Service’s National Historic Landmarks Program oversees the designation of such sites. There are just over 2,500 National Historic Landmarks. All NHLs are also listed in the National Register of Historic Places. NHLs come in many forms: buildings, sites, structures, objects, and districts.

A historic site may receive designation as an NHL if it:

  • is the location with a strong association with a turning point or significant event in American history.
  • is the best location to tell the story of an individual who played a significant role in the history of the United States.
  • is an exceptional representation of a particular building or engineering method, technique, or building type in the country.
  • provides the potential to yield new and innovative information about the past through archaeology.

Most NHLs are owned by private individuals, universities, non-profit organizations, corporations, tribal entities, or local and state governments.  The Federal government owns fewer than 400 NHLs (16%).  The laws that govern property rights still apply to designated Landmarks.  Designation of a property as a National Historic Landmark does not give ownership of the property to the Federal government or the National Park Service. Visit the National Park Service’s website to learn how to nominate a property for NHL Designation or to view a list of existing sites using this interactive map.

National Monuments 

National Monuments (NM) are established by Presidential decree or Congressional legislation to preserve “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest”. Six federal agencies in four departments manage 113 NM sites, as of 2015. View listings by state and management agency here.

Fifty-eight national monuments protect places of natural significance, including eleven geological sites, seven marine sites, and five volcanic sites. Twenty-two national monuments are associated with Native Americans. Twenty-nine are other historical sites, including twelve forts. NMs are established by the President or Congress to protect areas and objects of historic and scientific importance. The Bureau of Land Management’s National Conservation Lands include 21 national monuments in nine western states. View a map of National Monument land areas as of March 2015,

 National Forests

The U.S. has 154 protected areas known as National Forests covering 188,391,233 acres (or 294,361 sq. mi), which are areas where forest reserves are established to protect the forest resources, secure water supplies, provide rangeland, and supply timber as well as provide outdoor recreation and support “fish and wildlife purposes”. National Forests are managed by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) under the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The USFS provides locator map as well as an alphabetical list of National Forests by state. Visit the USFS page for contact information for your National Forest managers.

National Parks and Preserves

The U.S. has 59 protected areas known as National Parks that are operated by the National Park Service under the Department of the Interior. National parks must be established by an act of the United States Congress. Seven national parks (six in Alaska) are paired with a National Preserve; while administered together, they are typically considered separate units. National Preserves are a type of National Park Service protected area designated by the United States Congress that have characteristics normally associated with U.S. National Parks but where certain natural resource-extractive activities such as fishing, hunting, mining, and oil/gas exploration and extraction are permitted. USFS provides a list of maps for National Parks and National Monuments here. Maps of all U.S. National Parks are available here. Learn more about Designations of National Park System Units.