Birds at Chincoteague NWR, © Steve Hillebrand/USFWS

Celebrate Your Public Lands!

September 26 is an important date. Of course, as you already know, it’s the date the Beatles released “Abbey Road” in 1969. It marks the first televised presidential debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy in 1960. And Thomas Jefferson was appointed America’s first Secretary of State on September 26, 1789.

What you might not have known is that this Saturday, September 26, is also National Public Lands Day. This day of celebration invites Americans to enjoy the lands that belong to them, and even volunteer in projects to enhance public lands and resources.

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Silvio O. Conte National Wildlife Refuge, © James Weliver/USFWS

Public lands are a vital part of our birthright as Americans. We owe them to early visionaries in Congress and people like President Ulysses S. Grant, who in 1872 signed legislation creating the world’s first national park, and President Teddy Roosevelt, who designated the first national wildlife refuge in 1902. The United States is blessed with an unparalleled system of lands that belong to every one of us. In fact, when you add it all up, “We The People” are among the largest landowners in the world, with more than 650 million acres of federal and state lands.

Tule Elk, © BLM

Public lands include parks and wildlife refuges where we camp, hike, watch wildlife and seek solitude away from the bustle of our everyday lives. These are some of our most iconic landscapes, from the Grand Canyon, to Yellowstone, Denali, and Acadia. They are home to creatures that need room to roam, like wolves and grizzly bears and bison. But while our parks and wildlife refuges are known and loved by every person with a bucket list, they make up just a small percentage of our public lands heritage.

Our National Forest System includes 193 million acres of national forests and grasslands across the country. Lesser known is the National System of Public Lands, administered by the Bureau of Land Management, which totals 248 million acres in the American West. While BLM lands include critical wildlife habitat and spectacular recreation areas, most of the agency’s holdings—primarily deserts and shrublands—are less visible to the average American. In fact, they don’t even show up on Google or state maps! Yet you are a part owner of these “invisible” places.

Not surprisingly, public lands—being publicly owned—are the center of an endless and intense debate in Congress and across the nation over their proper use and management. Industries seek greater access to public lands for the resources they can provide, such as timber, minerals, oil and gas, and grazing land for livestock. At the same time, conservationists work to protect and restore public lands for wildlife, healthy watersheds, resilience to climate change, and future generations of Americans.

Gunnison sage-grouse, © Noppadol PaothongDefenders is in the middle of this raucous conversation, ensuring that wildlife needs are considered in public lands management. We closely monitor policymaking for the National Wildlife Refuge System, including strategies for growing and protecting the system from threats, both internal and external. Just last year, one of our experts testified before Congress about the ongoing threat of drilling on refuges—an activity that many people probably do not realize occurs on wildlife refuges. We are also working to improve protection for fish and wildlife in national forests, and recently won litigation to prevent some officials, backed by the timber industry, from opening more of these lands to destructive logging in Alaska. And we’ve been heavily engaged in the Bureau of Land Management’s unprecedented planning process to conserve sage-grouse on more than 60 million acres of public land in the Sagebrush Sea. Despite the progress these new plans represent for wildlife management, we remain concerned about the future of this imperiled bird on the public domain.

While we work year-round to advocate, litigate, protect and restore our cherished public lands, we always look forward to the one day each year when more of the public takes a closer look at the land and resources we all own. This weekend, forget about all the conflict and controversy and simply spend time enjoying your public lands. If inclined, join a volunteer project on public lands near you and take an active role in caring for these wild places. They belong to you, after all.