NATURE NOTES – Number 29              September 28, 2021


This NOTE is not exactly about nature, but more about places to visit and learn about nature.  And some of these are nearby.  So let’s look at….

Our Current Topic:  National Forests and National Parks

Lots of folks visit our national forests and national parks each year, including scout troops and families on vacation.  Often people get confused about the two names, the areas covered, and the federal government organizations that run them.  So let’s try to clarify some differences.

First, both are part of a huge part of this country that the federal government owns. About 30% of our forests are owned by the federal government. The Bureau of Land Management, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the various military services, and Indian Reservations are other major federal land holders. 

The U. S. Forest Service (USFS), a part of the Department of Agriculture, owns and manages over 150 national forests in this country totaling over 188 million acres.  Our local national forest is the George Washington-Jefferson National Forest that stretches along Interstate 81 from I-66 south to the North Carolina border and contains over 1.6 million acres.  There are many privately owned parcels of land within the boundaries of the national forests, so when you see the sign that says Welcome to the National Forest, it is not necessarily a contiguous block of federal land, but an area that contains large tracts of USFS land.  In addition to private land we often find towns that are surrounded by national forests, such as Pearisburg in Giles County and New Castle in Craig County.  There are many activities that go on inside the national forests, such has hunting, timber harvesting, recreation, mining, cattle grazing and oil leases.  You often see the term “Multiple-Use” or “Land of Many Uses” mentioned in their publications or signage.  All of these are under the supervision and regulations of the USFS and are often heavily influenced by public input as well as politics.  These forests are divided into Districts under the supervision of a District Ranger and his/her staff of wildlife specialists, foresters, recreation managers, fire managers, law enforcement officers, various scientists and maintenance and administrative positions.  The original purpose of the national forests as outlined in the 1897 law that created them was protection of the nation’s timber supply and watersheds.  Over the years its mission has expanded greatly to focus more on wildlife management, recreational use and preservation of the forest itself.  Since the federal government does not pay local real estate taxes on land, local county governments lose a lot of revenue by having these lands within their boundary. As compensation, the USFS provides local counties annual funding to support local road improvements and local schools.

The U. S. Park Service, under the Department of the Interior, is responsible for managing designated land that has been set aside for historical or scenic significance.  Some smaller parcels of land may be national monuments, such as the Booker T. Washington National Monument in Franklin County, or other sites that are not called national parks, but under USPS management, such as our Blue Ridge Parkway, or the Antietam National Battlefield in Maryland.  The Shenandoah National Park, the Great Smoky Mountain NP in NC and many of the big parks out west (Grand Canyon, Yellowstone) are part of the U. S. Park Service system.  These sites, over 400 of them, are generally NOT available for hunting, timber harvesting, mining, etc. as are the national forests.  Their purpose is primarily for recreation, education and preservation, thus they are more focused on serving visitors.  They too have a diverse staff of specialists to maintain their properties, as well as many interpreters who tell the history of the site or explain the natural significant of the park to millions of visitors each year.  Park Rangers and these interpreters are the employees most often seen by the public. 

Both the national forests and national parks are areas that can provide camping, hiking, wildlife viewing and backpacking experiences to scouts and families.  Also, some of both the Forest Service and the Park Service land may be designated as Wilderness Areas that have been set aside for even more restricted use by the public.  These are often more remote and rugged areas that are much less traveled and used by the general public and may require special permits for use. 

In addition to these federally owned tracts of land, states also operate parks and forests that are accessible to the public.  Each state is a little different and may use different names, but most have both forests that usually allow timber harvesting and hunting, and parks that may be restricted to recreation purposes, such as Hungry Mother State Park near Marion, VA. These are operated under state regulations and are not controlled by the federal government.  These too are excellent sites for scouts to visit to learn about nature, as many of these also provide seasonal interpretive programs.  And finally, cities and counties may also maintain areas that are managed for public use such as city or county parks and forests surrounding reservoirs.  These too may have nature study opportunities such as the Mill Mountain Discovery Center in Roanoke.

Nature Opportunities:

Maybe this will help clarify some of the areas where you may go to camp or hike and explain why there are different rules you might encounter and why you might find the staff wearing different uniforms.  Regardless of who operates these outdoor sites, go and enjoy them.  As a taxpayer you are funding their existence.  They are there for the public, and they usually do a good job of explaining nature. Use ‘em!

As always, thanks for reading NATURE NOTES!

Bob Garst

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