National Forest…

National Park…

Illinois State Park…

What’s the difference and does it even matter?

I’m sure you’ve heard all the terms: National Forum, National Park, State Park, Wilderness, Recreation Area, Natural Area, Ecological Area, and so on and so on! A lot of folks even mix these terms up and associate them with places that actually do not label themselves as such terms. What’s the difference? And does it even matter? The short answer is there is a huge difference and yes, it really does matter for an assortment of reason. The long answer? Read this article!


What’s a National Forest?

In the United States, a National Forest is a type of public land classification that is managed and protected on a federal level. This is why the term ‘National’ is included into the full language of the term. National Forests in the United States are mainly made up of woodland and forested areas. A National Forest is owned by the American People but is managed and protected by the United States Forest Service (USFS). The USFS is managed by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The USFS falls under the USDA because a forest is considered resources in agriculture. One of the original purposes of the formation of the USFS was to provide timber and water resources to the Nation but now recreation has significantly become a major component of the agency and land management strategies. As of date, there are 154 National Forests in the United States.


What’s a National Park?

A National Park is also a classification of public lands which is Nationally managed by the federal government. However, there is many differences between a National Park and National Forest – one of the largest is resource harvest! Resources in National Forest can be harvested (trees, water, etc.) but resources in a National Park are protected and may not harvested. A National Park includes parks, monuments, and other types of protected areas in the United States and it is managed by the National Park Service (NPS). The NPS is managed by the United States Department of Interior. National Parks are all about preserving land in which is considered to be United States Treasure and historical cultural sites. The NPS provides education and recreation opportunities to visitors without harvesting resources. Taking things such as rocks, old bottles, plants are related from a National Park for example if federally prohibited whereas some activities are allowed by permit on National Forest managed land.


What’s a State Park?

A State Park is a park or recreation area managed at a state level. In Illinois, state parks are managed by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. State parks are managed and funded by the state managing agency and not by federal land management agencies. State land mangers and federal land managers often collaborate and work together, though.


What’s the difference between a natural area, ecological area, research natural area, zoological area, and archeological area?

Although all of these areas often maintain the same regulations and guidelines, there is still a difference between them. A Natural Area or Research Natural Area are areas that have been permanently designated for protection and research for the special elements within the specific amount of land. Some of these areas have specific types of elements that make them specific types of natural areas like zoological for a specific type of animal that may be rare or protected or archeological for a historically significant cultural element of the past such as Native American sites.

The state may also have these types of areas often called Nature Preserves or State Preserves. These preserves are state managed but many of them may be directly in the middle of National Forest land. For example, the ‘Lusk Creek Canyon’ is a state-managed preserve that is located in the middle of the federally managed Lusk Creek Wilderness in the Shawnee National Forest.


What is a wilderness?

In the United States, it takes an act of Congress to set aside an area of federally protected land known as a Wilderness. Wilderness areas are protected to the point to where non-motorized vehicles and bicycles are not allowed within them. Each wilderness has a boundary line and modes of transportation cannot made within them. Once established, only Congress may modify the boundary of a wilderness. Wilderness areas may be accessed by foot or hooves only. In Illinois, the oldest Wilderness Area is located in Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge and is managed by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). There are also 7 wilderness areas in Illinois managed by the US Forest Service (USFA) including Bald Knob Wilderness, Bay Creek Wilderness, Burden Falls Wilderness, Clear Springs Wilderness, Garden of the Gods Wilderness, Lusk Creek Wilderness and Panther Den Wilderness. Wilderness areas are federally managed not state managed.


What is a Recreation Area?

In the United States, Recreation Areas in terms of a National Forest are often day-use only sites. An example would be Garden of the Gods Observation Trail or Bell Smith Springs. You can use these areas during the day, but you cannot camp or use the areas after dark. Most Recreational Areas do have campgrounds near them, though. Some sites such as Rim Rock are designated as National Recreation Areas which hold a higher degree for the scenic and cultural significance of the area but generally abide by the same day-use guidelines of normal Recreation Areas. Some areas of the forest may have known forms of recreation but are not designated Recreation Areas such as Jackson Falls.


What the heck is Shawnee and who manages it?

The Shawnee is a National Forest – Shawnee National Forest. There is no such thing as Shawnee National Park in Illinois as there are no National Parks in Illinois. The Shawnee National Forest is maintained by two Ranger Districts, Hidden Springs (east side) and Mississippi Bluff (west side) with the headquarters (supervisor office) in Harrisburg, Illinois. These districted are a part of the US Forest Service which is managed by the US Department of Agriculture. The Shawnee National Forest is managed and budgeted on a federal level. The State of Illinois does not manage or fund the Shawnee National Forest but there are state-managed lands within the Shawnee, mainly preserves like Indian Kitchen. When it comes to wildlife managed in Illinois, Illinois Department of Natural Resources managed wildlife even on National Forest land. For example, in order to hunt or fish in Illinois on state or federal land, you MUST obtain a state-issued license for harvesting such wildlife. The employees of the US Forest Service are referred to as Technicians not Rangers. In the US Forest Service, the only people who are Rangers are those in charge of District offices like the one in Vienna and the one in Jonesboro. US Forest Service Law Enforcement are known just as that, Law Enforcement – not Rangers!

One last thing!

Filming the videos, taking the photos, editing everything and writing this article takes time and it’s all provided for free. Consider making a small monthly contribution to Hiking with Shawn by becoming an official Patreon supporter on Hiking with Shawn! You can also support us by purchasing official merch from the Hiking with Shawn online store. Lastly, please share this article and our videos and follow us on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Tumbler for more free guides, videos, photos, contests and more!

Thanks for checking out this guide and please share it with others if you’d like to see more of them made!

Shawn J. Gossman

Shawn J. Gossman


Shawn is the founder and host of the YouTube Channel, Hiking with Shawn as well as Hiking with Shawn LLC. Shawn hikes, backpacks and visits various forested areas in the Shawnee National Forest, local state parks and other areas promoting outdoor recreational activities to obtain video to show to locals and non-locals alike. Please support Shawn’s efforts by sharing this post and leaving a comment below.

Subscribe Today!

Get Your FREE Gift Now!

Subscribe to the official Hiking with Shawn Newsletter and get a free gift! The newsletter is free, sent once a month, and contains exclusive articles, tips, offers, contests, and upcomig events that you won't find anywhere else. You can unsubscribe anytime with ease. Subscribe now (for a limited time only) and get my free 70+ page 35 Hiking Trails of Southern Illinois Guide. This PDF will be sent to your email right after you subscribe (check your junkmail just in case and add me as a contact). I hope to see you on the mailing list!

Thanks for subscribing! Go check your email!