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National Forest vs National Park (Here’s the Difference)

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national forest vs national park, bridger teton national forest wyoming
In the foreground is the Bridger-Teton National Forest vs Grand Teton National Park in the background.

National Forest vs National Park – while these might sound similar, and even look similar, they are actually quite different in many respects.

Let’s start with the basics of the question of “what’s the difference between National Parks vs National Forests?”

The major difference between National Forests versus National Parks is not the types of land, geography, or even outstanding qualities, but rather their management. Allow me to elaborate.


National Forest vs National Park

national forest vs national park, zion national park history - ranger at entrance station
An archival photo of a National Park Service Ranger at Zion National Park (courtesy NPS)

Let’s start with the basics – both National Parks and National Forests are federally managed public lands which mean the federal government in Washington is ultimately responsible for their management.

This means the states are not responsible for the management of these lands. However, the states do have some involvement in the management of wildlife in National Forests. More on that later.


So Who Manages a National Forest vs National Park?

The key difference between National Forests vs National Parks lies in their management. Here’s who manages what.

Who Is In Charge of the National Forests (USFS)?

frank church river of no return wilderness idaho salmon river rafting
US Forest Service Ranger on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River

National Forests are managed by the US Forest Service (USFS) which is part of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).

National Forests > US Forest Service > US Department of Agriculture 

The person in charge of a single National Forest is known as a Forest Supervisor. Their boss is a Regional Forester which oversees all of the national forests within a particular region (of which there are 8).

The Regional Forester’s boss is the Chief Forester who is in charge of the entire Forest Service. The Chief Forester’s boss is the Secretary of Agriculture who is in charge of the entire Department of Agriculture.

The Secretary of Agriculture is a cabinet level position which means their boss is the President of the United States.


Who Is In Charge of the National Parks (NPS)?

national forest vs national park
National Park Service Rangers are issued the iconic flat-brimmed hat while US Forest Service Rangers are not.

National Parks are managed by the National Park Service which is part of the US Department of the Interior.

National Parks > National Park Service > US Department of the Interior 

The person in charge of a National Park is known as a National Park Superintendent. Their boss is the National Park Service Director who is in charge of all the National Parks (and national park service managed sites including national monuments and more).

The National Park Service Director answers to the Secretary of the Interior who is in charge of the Department of the Interior. The Secretary of the Interior is a cabinet level position and as such their boss is the President of the United States.

RELATED: What Exactly is a National Park?


The National Forests Under Department of the Interior? Once upon a time…

Did you know that originally the National Forests were managed by the Department of the Interior? That’s right!

But, in 1905 the National Forests were transferred to the Department of Agriculture. This was done as part of a reorganization of federally managed public lands under President Theodore Roosevelt, headed by the newly created US Forest Service and it’s first Chief Forester, Gifford Pinchot.

Important Dates

  • 1872 – Yellowstone National Park becomes the world’s first National Park
  • 1891 – Shoshone National Forest becomes the first National Forest
  • 1905 – US Forest Service Created to manage National Forests
  • 1916 – National Park Service Created to manage National Parks

RELATED: Gifford Pinchot: A 2021 Lesson from America’s First Forester

Size – National Forests vs National Parks

US Forest Service

  • 193 million acres
  • 155 National Forests
  • 20 National Grasslands
  • 1 National Tallgrass Prairie

National Park Service

  • 84 million acres
  • 423 National Park Sites including:
  • 63 National Parks
  • 85 National Monuments
  • 4 National Parkways
  • 19 National Preserves
  • 2 National Reserves
  • 18 National Recreation Areas
  • 4 National Rivers
  • 3 National Scenic Trails
  • 10 National Seashores
  • 10 National Wild and Scenic Rivers and Riverways
  • 4 National Battlefield Parks
  • 1 National Battlefield Site
  • 9 National Military Parks
  • 60 National Historical Parks
  • 76 National Historic Sites
  • 1 International Historic Sites
  • 3 National Lakeshores
  • 31 National Memorials
  • 11 National Battlefields
  • 1 White House
  • 10 Other Designations

Management Styles: National Forest vs National Park

frank church river of no return wilderness idaho salmon river cave

The biggest difference between the National Forests and National Parks is how they are managed. This difference can be summed up in two words – multiple use.

National Parks are managed with preservation as a top priority, aiming to keep the national parks just as they are in their current or “original” states (a combination of the two usually).

National Forests are managed for multiple use meaning for a combination of preservation & conservation, utility & resources (think timber products, oil, etc), & recreation.

As Gifford Pinchot, first Chief Forester of the US Forest Service, the National Forests are “to provide the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people in the long run.”


Mission Statements

national park service ranger mlk monument
A National Park Service Ranger at the Martin Luther King Jr Memorial in Washington DC

National Forest: The mission of the USDA Forest Service is to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the Nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations.

National Park: The National Park Service preserves unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System for enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.


Fun FactsNational Forest vs National Park

parotts grotto frank church river of no return wilderness salmon river
A US Forest Service Ranger in the Frank Church – River of No Return Wilderness

In the field, National Park Service Rangers are issued the iconic flat-brimmed hats while US Forest Service Rangers are not. They are issued ball cap style hats.

There is almost no hunting in National Parks (with the exception of Grand Teton’s elk reduction program) while there is hunting on National Forests.

The oldest National Park (Yellowstone) is older than the oldest National Forest (Shoshone) but the US Forest Service is older than the National Park Service.

There are more National Forests than National Parks but more national park sites than sites managed by the US Forest Service.

The US Forest Service is responsible for more than twice the amount of land as the National Park Service and as such their annual budget is about double that which the NPS receives.

The person who runs a national park is called a Superintendent whereas the person who runs a national forest is called a Supervisor.


Further Reading

Will Pattiz

Co-founder of More Than Just Parks. Husband. Conservationist. Currently living in NYC.

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