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What is the Difference Between National Parks and National Forests?

A quick explanation on two important types of protected lands that are often confused.

As many of you know, Matthew and I will be visiting all 63 National Parks across the US over the next several years. Once we finish the skoolie, that is.

There are a lot of other places that seem amazing and we'd love to see them eventually, but we are just focusing on the National Parks for now. We'll save State Parks, memorials, and many other beautiful places for later.

National Forests are among that list of places we'll skip over for now. While they provide great hiking, they are quite a bit different than National Parks.

Today, I'd like to compare and contrast these two types of land and find out what exactly it takes to create them.


National Parks

What They Are

National Parks are areas of land that are protected by the government to preserve their natural beauty.

Who Manages Them

National Parks Service under the US Department of the Interior

Their Purpose

"The National Park Service preserves unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations. The Park Service cooperates with partners to extend the benefits of natural and cultural resource conservation and outdoor recreation throughout this country and the world."

- NPS website

In short, the main goal of the National Parks Service is to make sure the land is kept from harm and available for our enjoyment. This means the lands are barely altered. Sure there are roads and trails throughout the parks, but you won't find housing developments or rock quarries.

The NPS wants to ensure that these beautiful landscapes, and the rich history behind them, are preserved for us as well as future generations. Below, I have included a quote from the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act, 1872 in which the first National Park was created.

" hereby reserved and withdrawn from settlement, occupancy, or sale under the laws of the United States, and dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people;"

- Yellowstone National Park Protection Act, 1872

To learn more about how and why the National Parks were created, read this blog. You'll learn about the people who paved the way for the NPS and why the first National Parks was established.

Things you will find in National Parks that you won't find in National Forests include visitor centers, ranger-led discussions and activities, shuttles, and historic lodges.

The National Park Service manages way more parks and lands than just the 63 National Parks. The National Parks Service manages 423 individual sites throughout all 50 US states (and some outside of the states) adding up to over 85 million acres of protected land. This includes historic sites, memorials, monuments, and other recreational areas.

National Forests

What They Are

National Forests are lands set aside to be maintained, ecologically used, and sustained for future use.

Who Manages Them

National Forest Service Under the US Department of Agriculture

Their Purpose

National Forests, unlike National Parks, serve more purposes than just preservation. They have a multiple-use mandate that lets the lands be manages in a way that makes the best use of the land for the people while maintaining its health. Some of these lands are used for their timber, grazing, wildlife protection, research, and more.

"The overriding objective of the Forest Service's forest management program is to ensure that the National Forests are managed in an ecologically sustainable manner."

- US Forest Service Website

Often times, you will drive right through National Forests without even knowing. They do have signs to let you know when you've entered or exited one, but they aren't as showy as National Parks. After all, their main purpose isn't recreation. However, many of the National Forests do have trails, camping, and other recreational activities.

Another thing that stands out about the National Forests is that they are pet friendly! National Parks do not allow pets in most areas of the park, including trails, which makes National Forests a better option for pet owners. There are, of course, a few exceptions to this rule, but in general you can feel free to bring your four-legged friend along for the trip.

entering mount baker - snoqulmie national forest sign. wood and rock sign in forest

Throughout the country, there is a total of 155 National Forests. In Washington State alone, there are nine National Forests. One of the favorites is Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. Here you will find over 1,500 miles of trails for hiking or backpacking, camping sites, hunting, scenic drives, and more.

Who and What Makes a National Park?

Since 1872, 63 National Parks have been created within the US. There is criteria that the land must meet in order to become a part of the National Park System, which is why they make up such a small percentage of the total protected lands in the US.

"To be eligible for favorable consideration as a unit of the National Park System, an area must possess nationally significant natural, cultural, or recreational resources; be a suitable and feasible addition to the system; and require direct NPS management instead of protection by some other governmental agency or by the private sector."

- Division of Park Planning and Special Studies, National Park Service

The public, state, or local officials, Indian tribes, members of Congress, and the National Park Service all have the ability to propose a new addition to the National Park System. Ultimately, it is only the authority of congress to pass an act that grants such an addition.

Congress also has the ability to determine that the land is better protected by another group. For example, the state officials of Washington can make a proposal to add land to Olympic National Park. Once the proposal gets to congress and sufficient studies have been made, congress can decide that the land would be better designated as National Forest land.

Is It the Same Process for National Forests?

Since National Forests are managed by the Forest Service under the Department of Agriculture, the process of their creation is a bit different though not by much.

First of all, the requirements are different. National forests are created for the main purpose of managing healthy and useful forests. They don't need to have cultural significance or any of that which is required of National Parks.

" 1891, the president was authorized to reserve lands from the public domain as forest reserves, but this authority was subsequently limited by Congress."

- Katie Hoover, Congressional Research Services

National Forest System Management Document 2016

What this means is that back in the day, it was the job of the president to purchase and add new land to the Forest Service. Now, adding or adjusting National Forest lands is done through an act of congress. The Secretary of Agriculture can also play a huge role in this process and has many authorities given to him because of various acts throughout the years.

In Conclusion

The two types of protected lands that I've discussed today, National Parks and National Forests, have their similarities and differences.

The biggest difference between the two is that National Forests have a multiple-use mandate that allows that land to be economically used for its resources and maintenance. While it is not permitted to cut down the redwoods in Redwood National Park for timber, it is the main purpose of some National Forests.

National Parks do their best to preserve the land (doing as little as possible to it) for education, inspiration, and the enjoyment of the public. You can certainly enjoy nature in the National Forests, but it is a much different setting.

Because these two types of protected lands have different goals, they are run by different parts of the government. National Parks are managed under the Department of the Interior, while National Forests are managed under the Department of Agriculture.

Perhaps more important than the difference of these two, is their similarities. Both National Parks and National Forests exist to keep our country beautiful. Sometimes this means just letting us enjoy the scenery, and other times it means we get to use the great resources available to us (in a sustainable manner of course).

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Meet the Author


Hey! I'm Kaitlynn, a lover of the outdoors and all things travel. I quit my job to travel full-time with my husband, Matthew, in our skoolie. 

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Matt & Kate

Project 63 

Bringing you travel information and inspiration as we travel to all 63 National Parks.

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