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What is the Difference Between National Parks and National Forests?

It’d be quite understandable if you get a little mixed up when talking about either National Forests or National Parks. I mean, they both start with the same word and they’re owned by the federal government, right?

What is the difference between National Parks and National Forests? National Parks are usually designed to protect very unique natural features and landscapes, such as the Grand Canyon. National Forests are more plentiful and cover much more land, as they are designed to protect forests as a whole while offering recreational opportunities and producing timber.

While I personally tend to be more of a National Forest guy, in this post I’ll go over the differences between the two. Both are incredibly valuable in our efforts to protect the natural landscapes, but they generally serve very different purposes.

How They Are Managed

While both are areas of land that are managed by the federal government, National Forests and National Parks are managed for very different reasons.

National Forests

Right off the bat, we arrived at one of the clearest distinctions between the two. The National Forests in the United States are managed by an agency called the U.S. Forest Service, a part of the United States Department of Agriculture. This should provide a pretty good idea of what’s so different about these two. As you may guess, National Forests are managed more with utility and recreation in mind.

Regarding what utility means, you should really think about forest products such as timber and other related timber products. In comparison, National Forests cover almost four times as much land compared to National Parks. Despite having more land, the U.S. Forest Service has a lower budget per acre.

National Parks

On the other hand, National Parks are managed by the National Park Service, which falls under the Department of the Interior. Generally speaking, the purpose of National Parks is to protect an exceptional natural resource and the land that surrounds it.

While the National Park Service has less land to cover, they have higher budgets and employees when you look at it from an acreage perspective. What kind of areas are covered by a National Parks? Think of locations that are very well-known to the average American, such as Crater Lake or the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone. These locations typically have a unique feature or landscape that draws people in from all sources.

As the National Parks are structured to protect such resources, they are generally meticulously maintained, and you’re a little bit more restricted in what you can do there.

How They Are Used by the General Public

While National Parks are great places for anyone to visit, National Forests tend to offer a mix of visit of recreation and utility that’s worth taking advantage of.

National Forests

National Forests are open to a wide variety of activities: everything from fishing to hunting to ATV riding and so on. While some of these things may be possible in National Parks, you can generally expect that you’ll deal with far fewer restrictions when in a National Forest.

A good example of this is foraging: almost every National Forest allows foraging of some kind, but a significant portion of the National Parks doesn’t allow foraging at all.

You can also generally expect to pay less in fees when visiting a National Forest. in fact, the vast majority of a National Forest is almost always open for free visitation. If you are interested in simply being around forests and spending time in nature, National Forests are likely a great fit for you.

National Parks

You can do many things in a National Park, but almost all of the activities are centered around the idea of visiting that location. Think of things like hiking, camping, or even visiting learning centers.

The idea is that visitors to the National Parks shouldn’t expect a certain level of engagement with the natural surroundings around them. Time spent in National Parks is better reserved for appreciating and admiring these amazing natural resources preserved by the National Park Service.

Geographic Distribution and Size

You can expect both National Forests and National Parks to cover large areas of land.

National Forests

Simply put, National Forest covers a lot more land when compared to National Parks. This makes sense, as one of the main purposes of National Forests is to help protect forests in general, not just specific areas of beauty. The National Forests in the United States cover more than 190 million acres of land, from 154 designated locations.

Most of that land is out West, but a fair amount of National Forest is distributed through the rest of the country. This isn’t necessarily the case with National Parks, but National Forests are more accessible to people in the country’s remaining parts.

National Parks

Although it’s still a lot of land, National Parks cover much less land as the 62 designated National Parks cover just over 50 million acres. The vast majority of the National Parks are located at West, making sense when you think about the unique geography associated with the western part of the United States.

Once again, the purpose of National Parks is generally to preserve natural features or landscapes that are particularly beautiful and unique.

What Kind of Lands They Protect

The type of land that is covered by each is one of the most significant distinctions between the two. As much as I love my National Forests, they just don’t usually have the incredible geography that’s often the main feature of a National Park.

National Forests

Much of the land designated as National Forest was less suitable for agriculture but perhaps quite suitable for forests. These lands are almost exclusively second-growth timber, which means that they were initially logged at some point, and very little old-growth trees remain.

Despite being mostly second-growth forests, there are still many mature forests present throughout our National Forests. Many of these lands were acquired in the early 20th century, and therefore the second-growth forests may be more than a hundred years old.

National Parks

Typically, what you see in a National Park is a natural feature or grouping of incredibly unique features prized by the public. The National Park typically consists of these features and then a wide range of land surrounding it. On the other hand, some National Parks are designed to protect a unique landscape itself.

A great example of this is Isle Royale, which is a remote island in the middle of Lake Superior near the Canadian border. This landscape is not unique from a geographic standpoint, but its size and location allows it to be and incredibly interesting experiment in predator and prey dynamics.

Final Thoughts

I hope you enjoyed this post and learned a thing or two about the great opportunities present on federal lands. Whether you’re interested in National Forests or National Park, there are plenty of ways for everyone to spend time in nature.

If you’d like to read other articles that are similar, here’s some you might want to check out:

By Drew Meulemans

I've long admired forests and devote much energy to learning about them and exploring. I enjoy sharing what I learn and wish to inspire others to do the same.