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Environmental Topics


See examples of how U.S. Government agencies manage land resources, types of land management, and a timeline of key U.S. Government documents on administering the lands.

The U.S. Government manages "approximately 640 million surface acres of federally owned land in the United States," both natural and cultural resources.^ The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS), U.S. Forest Service, and National Park Service (NPS) administer about 95% of these Federal lands. The other 5% are administered by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). These agencies manage the cultural and natural resources on land, water, and underground. The table below has definitions for these types of resource management. 

Term Definition
Cultural "Material remains of past human life or activities"^
Natural Conservation of healthy ecosystems, including animals, plants, air, soil, water, and land^^

A prescribed burn roars up trees on Egmont Key National Wildlife Refuge (Image source: Keith Ramos/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service/NAID: 166689786)

^Congressional Research Service^^Natural Resources Conservation Service

Timeline of Key U.S. Government Documents on Natural and Cultural Resource Management (1872 to 1990)

Click on the side arrows in this box to read more information.

  • March 1, 1872 | Yellowstone National Park Protection Act
  • February 8, 1887 | The Dawes Act
  • June 4, 1897 | Sundry Civil Appropriations Act of 1897 (Organic Act)
  • June 8, 1906  | American Antiquities Act of 1906
  • August 25, 1916 | Organic Act of 1916
  • June 18, 1934 | Indian Reorganization Act
  • September 3, 1964 | Wilderness Act
  • October 15, 1966 | National History Preservation Act (NHPA)
  • January 1, 1970 | National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA)
  • August 17, 1974 | Forest and Rangeland Renewable Resources Planning Act of 1974
  • October 21, 1976 | Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976
  • October 21, 1976 | Resource Conservation and Recovery Act
  • August 11, 1978 | American Indian Religious Freedom Act
  • October 31, 1979 | Archaeological Resources Protection Act 1979
  • December 11, 1980 | Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA)
  • November 16, 1990 | Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA)

March 1, 1872 | Yellowstone National Park Protection Act

"That the tract of land in the Territories of Montana and Wyoming, lying near the headwaters of the Yellowstone River, and described as follows... is hereby reserved and withdrawn from settlement, occupancy, or sale under the laws of the United States, and dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people; and all persons who shall locate or settle upon or occupy the same, or any part thereof, except as hereinafter provided, shall be considered trespassers and removed therefrom."^

This act creates the world's first national park.

February 8, 1887 | The Dawes Act

"An Act to provide for the allotment of lands in severalty to Indians on the various reservations, and to extend the protection of the laws of the United States and the Territories over the Indians, and for other purposes."^

This act "aimed to assimilate Native Americans into mainstream US society by encouraging them towards farming and agriculture; and over time it resulted in the "government stripping over 90 million acres of tribal land from Native Americans" and selling it to non-Native Americans."* 

For more information:

June 4, 1897 | Sundry Civil Appropriations Act of 1897 (Organic Act)

"All public lands designated and reserved prior to June 4, 1897, by the President of the United States under the provisions of section 4711 of this title, the orders for which shall be and remain in full force and effect, unsuspended and unrevoked... No national forest shall be established, except to improve and protect the forest within the boundaries, or for the purpose of securing favorable conditions of water flows, and to furnish a continuous supply of timber for the use and necessities of citizens of the United States."^

This act establishes the National Forest Reserve.*

June 8, 1906 | American Antiquities Act of 1906

"An Act for the preservation of American antiquities... any person who shall appropriate, excavate, injure, or destroy any historic or prehistoric ruin or monument, or any object of antiquity, situated on lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States without the permission of the Secretary of the Department of the Government.... shall, upon conviction, be fined in a sum of not more than five hundred dollars or be imprisoned for a period of not more than ninety days, or shall suffer both fine and imprisonment, in the discretion of the court."

This act also "authorizes the President to proclaim national monuments on federal lands that contain historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, or other objects of historic or scientific interest."*

August 25, 1916 | Organic Act of 1916

"That there is hereby created in the Department of the Interior a service to be called the National Park Service... The service thus established shall promote and regulate the use of the Federal areas known as national parks, monuments, and reservations hereinafter specified by such means and measures as conform to the fundamental purpose... to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and... leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."^

The act created the National Park Service.

June 18, 1934 | Indian Reorganization Act

"To conserve and develop Indian lands and resources; to extend to Indians the right to form business and other organizations; to establish a credit system for Indians; to grant certain rights of home rule to Indians; to provide for vocational education for Indians; and for other purposes."^

This act ended tribal land allotments and "recognized tribal governments and offered incentives for tribes to adopt U.S. government-style constitutions and governing councils."*

For more information:

September 3, 1964 | Wilderness Act

"To establish a National Wilderness Preservation System for the permanent good of the whole people, and for other purposes."^

This act "permanently preserved nine million acres of North America and established a National Wilderness Preservation System."*

October 15, 1966 | National History Preservation Act (NHPA)

"To establish a program for the preservation of additional historic properties throughout the Nation, and for other purposes."^

NHPA established "a national preservation program and procedural protections."*

January 1, 1970 | National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA)

"To establish a national policy for the environment, to provide for the establishment of a Council on Environmental Quality, and for other purposes."^

This act was "one of the first laws ever written that establishes the broad national framework for protecting our environment."*

August 17, 1974 | Forest and Rangeland Renewable Resources Planning Act of 1974

"To provide for the Forest Service, Department of Agriculture, to protect, develop, and enhance the productivity and other values of certain of the Nation's lands and resources, and for other purposes."^

The act provides a national plan for managing forests that "conserve and replenish" them."*

For more information:

October 21, 1976 | Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976

"To establish public land policy; to establish guidelines for its administration; to provide for the management, protection, development, and enhancement of the public lands; and for other purposes."^

This law became the "framework for federal management of public lands."*

October 21, 1976 | Resource Conservation and Recovery Act

"To provide technical and financial assistance for the development of management plans and facilities for the recovery of energy and other resources from discarded materials and for the safe disposal of discarded materials, and to regulate the management of hazardous waste."^

This is the "principal Federal law in the U.S. governing the disposal of solid waste and hazardous waste."*

August 11, 1978 | American Indian Religious Freedom Act (P.L. 95-341)

"...Whereas such laws were designed for such worthwhile purposes as conservation and preservation of natural species and resources but were never intended to relate to Indian religious practices and, therefore, were passed without consideration of their effect on traditional American Indian religions."^

This act "requires federal agencies to ensure that none of their actions interfere with the inherent right of individual Native Americans to believe, express, and exercise their traditional religions."*

October 31, 1979 | Archaeological Resources Protection Act 1979

"The purpose of this Act is to secure, for the present and future benefit of the American people, the protection of archaeological resources and sites which are on public lands and Indian lands, and to foster increase d cooperation and exchange of information between governmental authorities, the professional archaeological community, and private individuals having collections of archaeological resources and data which were obtained before the date of the enactment of this Act."^

In response to the 1974 United States v. Diaz case that challenged the constitutionality of the Antiquities Act of 1906, this "new law that strengthened the legal protection of archeological resources."*

December 11, 1980 | Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA)

"To provide for liability, compensation, cleanup, and emergency response for hazardous substances released into the environment and the cleanup of inactive hazardous waste disposal sites.^

Federal agencies have both short-term removal and long-term remedial response actions regarding "abandoned or uncontrolled hazardous waste sites."*

November 16, 1990 | Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA)

"... The ownership or control of Native American cultural items which are excavated or discovered on Federal or tribal lands after the date of enactment of this Act shall be (with priority given in the order listed)— (1) in the case of Native American human remains and associated funerary objects, in the lineal descendants of the Native American; or (2) in any case in which such lineal descendants cannot be ascertained, and in the case of unassociated funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony..."^

NAGPRA requires "federal agencies and institutions that receive federal funding... to repatriate or transfer Native American human remains and other cultural items to the appropriate parties."*

Example of Types of Land Management

The U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) has different types of land management and usage for the public to experience. Below is a table on the types, general definitions, and examples managed by the BLM, FWS, or NPS.^ 

Type General Definition Example
National Battlefields

Conservation of military history

Big Hole National Battlefield
National Conservation Areas

Conservation of lands set aside for present and future generations

El Malpais National Conservation Area
National Historic Sites

Preservation of a single historical feature

Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site
National Memorials

Commemoration of a historical person or tragic event

Lincoln Memorial
National Monuments

Protection of a cultural, historic, or natural feature

Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument
National Parks and Preserves

Preservation of historic and natural features of a large area

Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park
National Recreation Areas

Places near large reservoir for visitors to engage in water-based outdoor activities

Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area
National Seashores and National Lakeshores

Preservation of shorelines and surround islands

Assateague Island National Seashore
National Trails

Historic, recreation, and scenic trails

Iditarod National Historic Trail
National Wildlife Refuges

Conservation of lands for wildlife

Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge
Wild and Scenic Rivers

Preservation of rivers and land surrounding them

Musconetcong National Wild and Scenic River
Wilderness Areas

Places untamed by humans

Bruneau-Jarbidge Rivers Wilderness Area


BIA and Tribal Lands

Below is more information on BIA programs and services, the primary agency for the "administration and management of 56 million surface acres and 59 million acres of subsurface mineral estate held in trust by the United States for Indian tribes and individual tribal members."^

^Congressional Research Service

National Register of Historic Places, HABS, HAER, and HALS

This is the official NPS register of the "Nation's historic places worthy of preservation." Visit the NPS website to learn more about the evaluation criteria, the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966State Historic Preservation Offices, and Tribal Historic Preservation Office Program. The NPS also has the Heritage Documentation Programs that is comprised of the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), Historic American Engineering Record (HAER), and Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS). These three programs document and preserve architectural features, historic places, and heritage sites.