Quick Guide: National Parks vs. National Forests


Many times, I hear people use the words “National Parks” and “National Forests” interchangeably.  However, National Parks and National Forests are very different in the way they’re managed, who they’re managed by, and what their purpose is.  This became even more clear during my trip in the North Cascades, when we backpacked in both National Forest and National Park, and ran into a hunter just on the border between the two (The Trip That Ended With a Bang).

I’m here to explain the difference between National Parks and National Forests, and dispel any myths about what you can and cannot do in each.

National Parks

10714486_10203431656127220_7667768313179747150_oThe first National Park was Yellowstone, created in 1872. The National Park Service was not created until 1916, however, under the Organic Act, which states the mission as:

“to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life
therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such
means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

The National Park Service is housed in the Department of the Interior.  The Department of the Interior states its mission as:

“Protecting America’s Great Outdoors and Powering our future.

The U.S. Department of the Interior protects America’s natural resources and heritage, honors our cultures and tribal communities, and supplies the energy to power our future.”

You can see, The National Park Service, under the supervision of the Department of the Interior, is in place specifically for preservation, habitat and wildlife protection, tourism, and outdoor recreation.  Absolutely no resource extraction is allowed within a National Park (although I’m sure they’ll let you slide on that handful of blueberries).  So, within a National Park, you can go hiking, but not hunting.  They won’t cut down the trees for timber, and you can’t take massive amounts of wild ginseng to sell.  While many forms of recreation are allowed, many are not.  Walking and hiking is allowed in all, driving along roads is too.  Photography, of course, is allowed (certain restrictions for commercial photography).  Weddings, those are allowed too!  Rock climbing, mountaineering, etc.  In many, horseback riding is allowed as well.  However, mountain biking is rarely ever allowed, but there are a few parks that do (Mountain biking NPS).  Nor is dirt biking and ATV riding allowed  In most instances, dogs are not allowed on the trails in National Parks (there are very specific exceptions).

Ultimately, proper use is different in each park.  However, regulations within National Parks are very strict because their intended purpose is to “preserve.”  If we all had our run of the place, it would be difficult to preserve these amazing locations to the extent that we have been able.  In most instances, National Parks require you to acquire or purchase a permit to undertake your intended activity, such as backcountry campsite reservations for a backpacking trip or a climbing permit to do rock climbing or mountaineering.  This allows the park to limit the amount of people using the resource at a given time, ensuring a sustainable pattern of use.  It also allows the park to track its usage statistics.  In general, many also require an entrance fee, which will be used in park maintenance and preservation.  Many times people complain about such permits and fees, and question if the agencies really do use them to track statistics.  In fact, the NPS makes their numbers available to the public, and they can all be found here.  So, hopefully you know your financial contribution is going to good use.

The National Park Service’s symbol is an arrowhead, featuring mountains, a bison, redwood tree, and prairie.  It is used to represent the historical, cultural, and natural heritage that the park service is there to preserve.

Other sites that fall under the supervision of the National Park Service:

National Historic Sites, National Recreation Areas, National Monuments, National Battlefields, National Military Parks, National Lakeshore, National Seashore, National Scene Rivers and Trails, and the White House

Learn more about the National Park Service:  www.nps.gov

National Forests

1150612_10201070172091595_1241671972_oThe U.S. Forest Service, however, was created in 1905, and its mission states “to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations.”  While similar to the National Park Service’s mission, it differs in a number of ways.  First, their mission statement mentions productivity, which is a reference to resource extraction.  Also, the forest service refers to itself as a forestry organization, and the official website makes recognition of the forest service’s broad umbrella of responsibilities regarding its “multiple uses and benefits and for the sustained yield of renewable resources such as water, forage, wildlife, wood, and recreation.”  So, is the U.S. Forest Service a recreation organization?  Yes.  However, they also have dealings in providing quality drinking water to the public, as well as other forest resources such as timber.

Why the difference?  The forest service exists under the jurisdiction of the Department of Agriculture.  Therefore, the resources that fall on forest services land are looked on with more of a conservation ethic, rather than preservation.  National Forestlands are meant to be used and to provide for the American public, but done so sustainably.

What does this all mean for you as an outdoors person or tourist?  Well, first, less infrastructure and fewer regulations.  Many times, when driving in National Forests, you will be on dirt/gravel roads.  There is unlikely to be conveniently located visitor centers, although there are ranger stations scattered about.  There are no entrance stations or entrance fees.  However, you may need camping or hiking permits.  Sometimes you’ll need to get them online, but many times you can just pay at a self-serve registration station at a trailhead.  Hunting is very much allowed, but of course in association with seasonal restrictions.  So is the use of ATVs and other off-road vehicles, but most instances only in designated areas, on designated trails, and sometimes only during certain times of the year.  Pets are allowed in Fational Forests.  Mountain biking is also allowed in National Forests.  Other than that, all of the forms of recreation allowed in National Parks are allowed in forests, including hiking, photography, and rock climbing.

Similarly, you can find out how the U.S. Forest Service manages its budget and evaluates its performance here.

The U.S. Forest Service’s symbol is a traditional shield with a large “U.S.,” the two letters separated by a fir tree.  This design was decided upon by Gifford Pinchot, the first Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, and his assistant, Overton Price.

Other sites that fall under the supervision of the U.S. Forest Service:

National Grassland and National Tallgrass Prairie

Learn more about the U.S. Forest Service:  www.fs.fed.us

How are they similar?

Parks and forest are similar in the way the they are funded.  National Parks and National Forests are funded in three major ways:  direct funding from the government, user fees, and donations.  Direct funding from the government primarily comes from tax dollars from the American people.  User fees come from entrance stations and permits.  Donations can come from private entities, but also come from organizations in strong partnership with each agency.  These organizations work to fund raise and promote parks and forests.  Some examples include the National Park Fondation for the NPS and The Wilderness Society for the USFS.  These examples are national organizations.  However, in many instances, there are local organizations near specific parks that perform similar functions on a smaller scale.

Additionally, both agencies have a strong commitment to outdoor recreation.  They maintain an extensive recreation infrastructure of trails, roads, and viewpoints so that visitors and users like us can have the best experience possible.

Both agencies manage areas that are distinguished as “federally designated wilderness 468688_3892113296434_1413281824_oareas.”  Wilderness areas were designated by the Wilderness Act of 1964, which describes a wilderness area as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”  It further elaborates, stating it is “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.”  Wilderness areas have very little infrastructure, and do not allow motorized vehicles, mechanical transport, or permanent structures.  Trail crews cannot use motorized tools (i.e. chainsaws) for trail maintenance, and must use traditional equivalents (i.e. crosscut saws).  It is possible that trails in wilderness areas receive less maintenance and have fewer signs and trail markers.  The Wilderness Act was put in place to preserve the intrinsic value of nature.  Wilderness areas are not unique to just the National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service, but also exist within areas managed by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Both agencies show a strong commitment to research, whether in agency or providing permits for independent organizations to do research on their land.  Topics of research for each agency include but is not limited to wildlife management, vegetation management, climate change, habitat restoration, invasive species, outdoor recreation, wildland fire, and water, air, and soil quality.  Research conclusions can be implemented within agency lands, or distributed for public use.  Learn more about each agency’s research areas:  National Park Service – National Forest Service


Now you know some of the differences between the National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service and will be able to refer to “National Parks” and “National Forests” in their proper context.

This is meant to be a quick guide to the differences between these two agencies.  This is in no way exhaustive of each agency’s structure, goals, performance, history,  etc.  I encourage you to visit National Parks and Forests to learn more.  If you have any questions, leave a comment and I will try to find you an answer.


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