What Exactly is “Public Land”?

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It’s difficult to find a person without some connection to the land, to open spaces. We’re attached to it, especially in Idaho.

But did you know not all public land is the same? In fact, there’s a big variety in different types of lands going beyond just what the landscape looks like. Let’s take a look at some key differences in commonly-used terminology when it comes to our lands:

Public Lands: owned by the public (you, me, us), and managed by the federal government. Each resource agency, such as Fish and Game, or the Forest Service, has a different mission…some are even under different federal agencies! 

Idaho’s land mass is about 63% public, making our state one of the largest public lands holders in the nation. Under the umbrella of “public land” are many different subcategories of lands and waters run by agencies with a variety of missions and priorities.

  • The Department of Agriculture manages the US Forest Service (USFS), National Forests, and designated Wilderness. Examples of these lands include the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness or the Boise National Forest. 
  • The Department of Interior is responsible for the National Park Service (NPS), the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). Between these agencies falls jurisdiction of our national monuments like Craters of the Moon, our wildlife refuges and bird sanctuaries, and our multiple-use land managed for resources like grazing, oil, and timber.

We have many agencies working with many kinds of land that are all considered “public”. But what these public lands definitions all have in common, is that they are federally funded. Americans far beyond the state border help to share the enormous cost of maintaining the land. Stewardship – caring for the land, water and wildlife – is costly. A single wildfire can cost into the tens of millions of dollars, funds the State of Idaho doesn’t have to put towards taking care of the land. In addition to extremely expensive wildfire, the cost of maintaining trails and trailheads, campgrounds, boat launches, and other recreation access points adds up. Without collective funding from across the country, these facilities wouldn’t exist. 

That being said, our state has several options of lands that, while not technically “public land”, are accessible for recreationists and industry. 

State Endowment Land: When you hear this term, you are seeing a site that has been constitutionally mandated to secure financial resources for public schools and a few other collective resources. The requirement for state endowment land is to bring in the most income possible. A recent, hot-topic example has been the upcoming auction of Payette Lake’s Cougar Island to private owners.

County land – owned as a resource for the county and its residents. This land can be something like a fair grounds or a greenbelt along the river. In Idaho, good examples of county owned land is Barber Park in Boise or certain sections of the foothills. 

City owned land: your local park! Parks, swimming pools, greenbelts, and sometimes preserves are all operated by your municipality. That’s any local park, but in Eagle also includes sections of greenbelt or in Boise, much of the foothills. 

Private Land: It may look just like neighboring lands that are open and accessible to all, but the boundaries matter – crossing into private land without permission is illegal (and disrespectful). However, sometimes landowners will allow recreation leases or easements (or more informal “handshake agreements”) so folks can use their private land for outdoor recreation or hunting and fishing. In Idaho, private land is often used for farming, grazing, timber harvest, or as backyard, regular owned land.