Can you even imagine how hard birding would be if there weren’t public lands for us to visit? Like, think about being permanently fenced out of that park you always visit on migration, or having your favorite seawatching spot taken over for some exclusive yacht club. What would we even do? Make friends with someone with a great yard, I guess, or pay whatever someone wanted to charge for admission to their Bird Migration Fun Park sponsored by Pepsi. No thanks.
Thank goodness earlier generations recognized the need to set aside certain lands for the enjoyment of the public and for the preservation of the environment. Hundreds of millions of acres of this United States are owned by towns, counties, states, and the federal government, and are open for use by us birders.
Not all public lands are created equal, though. Understanding the different types of public lands and spooning through the alphabet soup of acronyms for land management agencies is enough to give Theodore Roosevelt himself a headache. (He was big into national parks, you see.) So, I consider it my civic duty to help out with a quick primer on our public lands. Plus, I want to tell you about them now because we won’t be able to enjoy our public lands in the same way if certain people get their way.
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Local and County Parks
What are they? These are mostly smaller parks, the kind that you’d find in the middle of a town. They are owned and managed by local municipalities or counties primarily for recreation.
What kinds of birds can I find in them? Lots, though these smaller parks don’t generally protect the kinds of birds that have specialized habitat needs, like, say, rails or grouse.
Do they cost money? Not usually, but I’m sure there are exceptions.
Which ones do you like, Nick? Oh man, nothing like a good local park, right? I’ve been spending a lot of time looking for shorebirds in the waterfront parks the city of Alexandria, VA maintains along the Potomac River. Local parks are often where birders go to find exotic species, which escape from urban cages or pet stores and look for the nearest semblance of natural habitat. I've seen the dwindling population of Spotted Doves in Salt Lake Park in Huntington, CA, or the Red-crowned Parrots I saw by the ballfields at Pendleton Park in Harlingen, Texas.
What are they? They’re parks owned and managed by a state. Duh. But riddle me this: How many state parks are there in the U.S. all together? Wrong, too low. Go higher. Nah I bet you’re still too low. As of 2014 there were more than 10,200 state parks in the United States!
What kinds of birds can I find in them? With 10,200 to choose from, I doubt there is any species that can’t be found in a state park at some point. Maybe the Himalayan Snowcocks in the Ruby Mountains of Nevada—they’re not in a state park. And the Colima Warbler. Possibly some others, too. But the point is: There are a ton of state parks, and they protect a ton of birds.
Do they cost money? Yeah, many of them charge entrance fees. Check the website of the park you’re trying to visit for more information.
Which ones do you like, Nick? Antelope Island State Park in Utah, where you can see bison and pronghorn and about a million phalaropes, is one of my absolute favorite places in the country. I saw the first ABA record Cuban Vireo in Florida’s Fort Zachary Taylor SP this spring, which was nice. And ask anyone in North Mississippi, and they’ll tell you that you can get more than 20 warbler species on lucky spring mornings at Wall Doxey SP.
Federal Public Lands
We’re getting into the confusing stuff now. For starters, remember how we have three branches of the federal government? Well, responsibility for all our federal lands is under the control of the Executive branch, led by the president. Under the president are several different departments to manage certain land areas.
Let’s start with the biggest of those departments, the Department of the Interior, which manages about 75 percent of all the federal lands in the United States, including national parks, wildlife refuges, and programs related to Native Americans and other indigenous peoples. The Department of the Interior is broken into agencies that manage particular lands.
Department of the Interior — National Park Service Lands
What are they? The National Park Service was created in 1916 (100 years ago last month!) with the a directive to “conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life” in national parks, 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.”
A noble purpose! As of last month, when President Obama established the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument in my beloved home state of Maine, there are 413 units of the national park system, with at least one in each of the 50 states.
Everyone knows the big national parks—Yosemite National Park, Yellowstone National Park, Grand Canyon National Park—but lots of folks don’t know that the National Park Service manages a lot of other places that aren’t called “national parks.” The list is long, and includes National Battlefields, National Lakeshore, National Historic Parks, Wild and Scenic Rivers, National Preserves, and certain National Monuments.
What kind of birds can I find there? Again, those pesky Himalayan Snowcock notwithstanding, I don’t think there are any birds that can’t be found at some point in a national park site. What national park has the most recorded species, you might ask? Great question. I bet you won’t guess it. As far as I can tell, it’s Point Reyes National Seashore in California, with 311 species from a single hotspot.
Do they cost money? Many of the larger ones charge an entrance fee, but the majority of smaller sites don’t charge anything. I need to take a moment now and talk about the Federal Lands Access Pass, which costs $80 and gets you into ALL federal lands for an entire year. It’s a great deal, but not as good as the Senior Pass, which you can get if you’re 62 or older, costs $10, and lasts forever. Ten dollars and lasts forever! That’s cheaper than many national parks charge for a single entrance.
What are some of your favorites, Nick? Asking me about my favorite national park is like asking me to chose between my nonexistent children. They’re all so perfect! Dry Tortugas National Park is probably the best spring migration spot in the country. Big Bend National Park is the only place in the U.S. to see the Colima Warbler. Island Scrub-Jays in Channel Islands National Park . . . I'll stop there.
And it’s not just national parks. I’ve had great birding days at historical and cultural parks managed by the Park Service. I’ve seen Bald Eagles soaring over George Washington Birthplace National Monument, and I’ve led bird walks through diverse grassland habitat at Monocacy and Antietam National Battlefields. There’s something for everyone.
Department of the Interior — U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
What are they? Our National Wildlife Refuges! Unlike national parks, which aim for a balance between public enjoyment and environmental protection, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is charged more directly with conserving, protecting, and enhancing the populations and habitats of fish, wildlife, and plants. They achieve this primarily through the management of 560 National Wildlife Refuges around the country.
What kind of birds can I find there? Tons. Wildlife refuges protect habitat for all kinds of species, but I think of them as most often geared towards wetlands and waterfowl. So, aimed more directly toward the protection of wildlife and lacking the crowds that sometimes can be annoying at the larger national parks, National Wildlife Refuges are a birder’s paradise.
Do they cost money? Yeah, most of the time there are those little envelopes you need to fill out and stick in the slot. Don’t cheap out and drive in without paying! I’m watching you.
What are some of your favorites, Nick? Man, oh man. How about the albatross and tropicbirds at Kilauea Point NWR in Hawaii? How about the shorebirds at Pea Island NWR in North Carolina or Bombay Hook NWR in Delaware? How about the ducks at Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge in Utah? How about upstate New York’s Montezuma NWR, where I saw tons of lifers? Too many to choose from.
Department of the Interior — The Bureau of Land Management
What are they? The Bureau of Land Management—true to their name—manages more land in the United States than any other federal agency, more than 247 million acres across the West. The agency gets a bad rap because they’re charged with managing stuff that tree-huggers don’t usually like: mining, oil and gas, and livestock management.
Whatever. People need to make a living, you know? Cows taste delicious and I need to drive a car, so the BLM isn’t all bad. Plus, they also manage more than 20 national monuments of their own and more than 200 Wilderness Areas.
If you've never been to a Wilderness Area, I highly recommend it. Wilderness is the highest level of protection that a piece of land can get. The idea being that it remains untouched and untrammeled by man. There are Wilderness Areas on lands managed by different agencies, including the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service, and they’re as remote as it gets. No roads. No mechanized vehicles allowed, including bicycles. Wilderness areas are intense, and I’m so glad they exist.
What kinds of birds can I find on BLM lands? Mostly western birds, because the vast majority of BLM lands are out West. All those birds of classic western landscapes are found on BLM lands: grouse and thrashers and Swainson’s hawks.
Do they cost money? Not unless you want to, like, graze your horse while you look for birds.
What are some of your favorites, Nick? I’ve seen both species of sage-grouse on BLM-managed lands. I saw Gunnison Sage-Grouse this year at the Waunita Hot Springs Lek in southwestern Colorado, and Greater Sage-Grouse near the Price Canyon Recreation Area in Utah.
Department of the Interior — Bureau of Reclamation
What are they? The Bureau of Reclamation is in charge of managing water resources, again primarily out west. So, these are a lot of dams and reservoirs, helping generate power and irrigate crops.
What kinds of birds can I find there? Lots of waterfowl.
Do they cost money? Yeah, there can be fees to visit dams if that’s what you want to do.
What are some of your favorites, Nick? Uhhh I’m gonna be honest here and say that I don’t know if I’ve ever birded a Bureau of Reclamation site. I’m sure they’re lovely.
Department of Agriculture — U.S. Forest Service
What are these? Okay so we’re out of the Department of the Interior now. Our National Forests and Grasslands are managed by a whole other department: the Department of Agriculture. It sorta makes sense because trees are plants, and growing plants is part of agriculture. Remember, back when these agencies were set up, our National Forests were all about growing trees in order to chop them down for stuff in the same way that other crops are harvested. That’s still a big part of it—trees remain very useful!—but now our national forests and grassland are as much about recreation and wildlife protection as they are about harvests.
The Forest Service manages a whopping 154 National Forests and 20 National Grasslands, covering 193 million acres. Wow.
What kinds of birds can I find there? Pretty much anything, I imagine. Like lands in the National Park System, you can find National Forests all across the country. Probably not a lot of seabirds being seen in forests, but just about everything else.
Do they cost money? Not usually, but some do. Here is a website that can help. Or just get that Access Pass I talked about before.
Department of Defense — Army Corps of Engineers
What are these? Didn't expect to see the Department of Defense on here, did you now? The Army Corps, like the Bureau of Reclamation, is mainly known to birders through their management of dams and reservoirs.
What kinds of birds can I find there? Again, a lot of waterfowl out on them reservoirs.
Do they cost money? Not usually. Unless, like, you’ve arranged a tour into a dam or something.
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Alright. I’ve kind of run out of steam here. Thanks for sticking with me, that pretty much covers it. The point of this mega column is: There is a ton of land out there that us American birders are allowed to just go hang out on and look for birds. Let’s go use it.