Looking Back – Imagine RV Travels without Public Lands

The National Park Service manages 424 individual units covering more than 85 million acres in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and US territories. While there are at least 19 naming designations, the most well known are the 63 National Parks, including Glacier National Park. We can give some of our thanks to Scottish-born John Muir.

As I think about having pulled our home on wheels over 30,000 miles through parts of the United States, Scotland pops into my thoughts. Years ago while visiting the most northern country in the UK, we discovered an interesting fact about it – there are no ‘Keep Out’ signs on fences in the Scottish countryside. In fact if you are hiking through Scotland, you can climb over a fence when there is no reasonable alternative nearby without fear of an angry land owner and his dog, that is as long as you avoid causing damage.

My parttime home, Chokoloskee Island is surrounded by Everglades National Park and is one of many examples where private ownership/business have clashed with public land acquisition.

Per Scotland’s Land Reform Act of 2003, everyone has access rights to ‘go into, pass over and remain on private property for recreational or educational purposes, and then leave it’. Basically, an individual in Scotland can walk, run or pedal through the bucolic countryside without detouring around fences as long as they are not hunting, shooting or fishing. This is a big deal because almost all of Scotland’s land is privately owned.

Our friends Kris & Mike overlook the Beartooth Mountains where they often backpack through the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness across Wyoming and Montana, all within national forests.

As a citizen of the United States, the concept of allowing recreational access to private property on a countrywide scale through a national government edict is odd and contradicts ‘individual rights’, for which this country was founded. So familiar to me are endless miles of fences and red and white ‘Private Property’ signs, not to mention the variety of colorful words used to warn us with no uncertain terms to ‘Keep Out’. Given this, one who seeks out natural areas to explore could be envious of Scotland’s land reform. But here’s where the United States has an advantage – it is massively large and as the newly formed Federal Government acquired large swaths of land, it did not give it all away to private individuals or commercial entities. Instead, it kept a large amount of it and over the years, gained back some more.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) oversees 244.4 million acres, the most federal lands of all the agencies. Most of the land is concentrated in Alaska and the 11 contiguous western states, including Utah where you can enjoy remote camping in Valley of the Gods.

The United States contains 2.27 billion acres of land, whereas Scotland is about the size of South Carolina or less than 1% of the total U.S. acreage. While 97% of U.S. land is rural, most of it is privately owned (about 61%) which can be partially attributed to the Homestead Act of 1862 through which the federal government promoted westward expansion by divvying out parcels of land to most any individual. Despite this and thanks to the “Leave it as it is, you cannot improve upon it” mentality of Theodore Roosevelt and others, 840 million acres remained or has since become public land. In short, U.S. citizens collectively own one third of the land. In contrast, public land in Scotland is about a third of 1% of the total land. This makes the U.S. quite compatible for overland traveling where individuals can drive their RV through millions of acres of public lands. And akin to the Scottish walker, one can hike and wander the wilderness areas across several state lines without stepping foot on private property- if they have the will to do so.

Utah ranks third in the percentage of land that is public – 75.2%, with Alaska and Nevada coming in 1st and 2nd, respectively. Utah contains only 43 state parks (compared to Florida’s 175), including Goblin Valley seen here.
Where Utah lacks in State Parks, in makes up for it in spades with five National Parks, including Canyonlands seen here… and
2.2 million acres of BLM lands, comprising 42% of the state, including Mule Canyon where a relatively easy hike allows you to see the infamous House on Fire.

This is not to give Scotland a bad mark by any means; instead, I can’t resist a good juxtaposition. And it’s also an interesting rabbit hole of inquiry into the reasons Scotland (and many other European countries for that matter) came to provide public access on private lands for the purpose of recreation. My simplistic answer after some research can be summed up as follows – the feudal system.

The Withlacoochee or Crooked River is a 70-mile river in Florida. Between 1936 and 1939, the federal government acquired the Withlacoochee State Forest from private landowners and eventually transferred the property to the state of Florida in 1958. This view is from one of the campgrounds in the state forest.

Through the Abolition of Feudal Tenure Act in 2000, Scotland was the last country to rid itself of feudal tenure. Up until then, that was how most land was owned – having been passed down by generations of nobilities. Currently, a little more than 400 people own half of Scotland’s private land and as few as 16 individuals own 10% of the country. And only 0.025% of the population owns 67% of the country’s rural land. The Land Reform Act of 2003 is an attempt to correct the inequality of land ownership without a government land grab. In short, to give people more space to recreate.

Imagine the entire Great Lakes shoreline as private property . Within the National Park Service, there are three designated National Lakeshores, all of them on the Great Lakes. In Michigan’s upper peninsula, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore can be viewed and explored from the waters of Lake Superior or the land overlooking it.

For Vivian and I, RV traveling has many layers to it, not the least of which is a wilderness experience on public lands. While we enjoy the land magnificent that is available to us, we cannot forget its acquisition came at a great cost to many people. Throughout our journeys, we see sad reminders of this often, yet we continually enjoy the rich experiences of exploring these public lands. I can filter it down to this – whether trekking the Scottish Highlands where serfs toiled long ago or parking an RV on remote BLM lands that once served as hunting grounds for an indigenous people – it is for us, the preservation of wilderness and history that is the endgame. “Leave it as it is, you cannot improve upon it”.

We are continually amazed at how well history is presented by park services. Throughout the Great Plains where we camped in state parks and visited national parks, we learned about the atrocities associated with land acquisition during the 1800s. An excellent example was Nebraska’s Fort Robinson State Park and the location of Crazy Horse’s murder.
Conservation is not only land, but also the wildlife that depend on it for their existence. Bison are a remarkable example of how wildlife on the brink of extinction can make a come back under the management of the National Park Service.
Meet Dolly & her 1-day old filly, Oakley in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota. The untamed horses are “feral,” as they are descended from domesticated animals. As representatives of the cultural history of the American West, they are protected under the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act.
Created in 1903, National Wildlife Refuge System under the auspices of U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services has 560 sites with at least one in every state. The Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge in Florida is home to thousands of wading birds and white pelicans which can be viewed easily by the public.
The “weird and scenic landscape” known as the Craters of the Moon is a National Monument and Preserve, in Idaho. This park is a perfect example of how one person can make a great difference in land preservation. Idahoan Robert Limbert recognized the uniqueness of the lava flows that could fascinate and delight visitors. Through his explorations, photography and detailed descriptions, he influenced President Coolidge to make Craters of the Moon a National Monument in 1924.
Michigan and Florida are comparable in percentage of land that is public – 28.1% and 29.2%, respectively. Tahquamenon Falls is one of 103 scenic and historical state parks in Michigan (including two new parks underway).
Florida’s state park system is a 4-time winner of the Gold Medal honoring the nation’s best state park system. It is one of the country’s largest with 175 parks and historic sites spanning almost 800,000 acres, including 100 miles of beach. Colt Creek State Park campground seen here is Florida’s newest and our favorite. .
The National Park Service contains four National Rivers, and 10 National Wild and Scenic Rivers and Riverways. The Buffalo National River in northern Arkansas flows freely for 135 miles and is one of the few remaining undammed rivers in the lower 48 states.
About 28% of U.S. land or 840 million acres is federally owned. Within New Mexico, 31.7% of the state is federally owned, including Bandelier National Monument, one of New Mexico’s and the National Park Service’s best kept secrets.
National Parks are not only to honor and preserve wilderness areas but to give tribute to specific locations that played a significant role in the history of the United States. Such is the case of St Louis, MO where the Gateway Arch National Park can be visited in the downtown area.
In partnership with the Kansas Dept of Wildlife and Parks, the Nature Conservancy recently acquired land that is now Little Jerusalem Badlands State Park. Once part of the McGuire Ranch, this state park is located in the middle of vast privately owned ranch lands. Thanks to organizations like the Nature Conservancy, Government agencies, and the generosity of land owners, unique lands critical to native wildlife and plants can be preserved for all to enjoy.
Yet another example of private-to-public land acquisition – located on Thunder Bay River, the Alpena Wildlife Sanctuary within the city limits of Alpena, Michigan. Once called Sportsmen’s Island Park, it was designated as a city park in 1985. Hiking trails traverse several ecosystems including pine forest and cedar marsh along 4400 feet of shoreline.
An example of a near perfect world – private landowners partnered with conservancy organizations to designate 28 natural areas within Michigan’s Leelanau Peninsula. Since 1988, The Leelanau Conservancy has preserved 14,000 acres of privately owned property for public enjoyment by working with over 200 families.
A large portion of south Florida land and water is within the national park system including 1 1/2 million acres of Everglades National Park and 3/4 million acres of Big Cypress National Preserve, home to an abundance of cypress forests like this one. BCNP became the U.S.’s first national preserve in 1974 and is currently one of 19 within the NPS.
Georgia’s ‘Little Grand Canyon” (Providence Canyon State Park) is the result of very bad farming practices during the 1800s, which created massive gullies as deep as 150 feet due to erosion. For recreational use, the unique multi-colored canyon walls and the rare plumleaf azaleas that bloom in this area make Providence Canyon State Park a Georgia gem.
Among our favorite campgrounds are within the Army Corp of Engineer recreation areas. U.S. ACE manages more than 400 lakes and rivers in 43 states that include 12 million acres of public lands and waters for recreational use. Seen here is Ortona South Lock Campground, one of three ACE campgrounds in Florida, all on the Okeechobee Waterway.
A park ranger glances up at the American flag that flies at Fort Sumter National Historical Park, one of 63 within the National Park Service. Although Fort Sumter is where the first shots of the Civil War were fired, it is not listed among the 25 National Battlefields and Military Parks that commemorate the Civil War.
One of the 63 crown jewels of the National Park Service, Yellowstone National Park. What would RV traveling be without the National Parks?

While traveling, Vivian and I love to take day hikes through many of the public wilderness areas we visit. I always carry a daypack that holds water & snacks, and many other “just in case” items that I may or may not need. I recommend the Osprey Daylite DayPack.

And of course one of the primary activities is photography. While I do use my iphone for picture taking, I use my DSLR mirrorless camera in those special places and when I have optimal weather and lighting conditions. Many of the photos you see above were shot with my Sony a7riii and quite often, I use a Hoya polarizer filter for those brilliant blue skies.

3 thoughts on “Looking Back – Imagine RV Travels without Public Lands

  1. Another great post. I never knew that Scotland had these “pass through” laws. Very interesting. I wonder if there are some restrictions on how close to the home of the land-owners one can “stray”? I don’t think I’d like strangers peaking in my windows! While we have never camped on BLM land, I understand the appeal (sort of). You two seem to find the best places to camp. By the way, your pictures are STUNNING!!! I especially loved the Mule Canyon photo. I am assuming that’s you and Vivian in the lower right corner? Very creative. How long did you set the timer on your camera in order to get back down to that spot?


    1. Lol, I don’t think my camera has a timer long enough for me to run back up that rock! That’s Vivian & her sister, remember she traveled with us for 2 mon. She appears in some of our photos.


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