A Resource for the Protected Areas Database of the United States (PAD-US)

Technical How-Tos


This help system is an orientation to PAD-US and does not contain detailed technical guidance on use of PAD-US data – instead, it focuses on explaining the overall structure and elements of the database, along with tips for using it effectively.


What Lands (and Waters) are in PAD-US?

“Protected Areas” is an umbrella term for a wide range of publicly managed land and water areas, and stems from the long-standing use of such data to define areas by the extent to which they are protected for biodiversity.

However, PAD-US now consists of data from thousands of land managing agencies, including lands managed for recreation, historic and scenic values, multiple-uses, and other natural and cultural resources. These include local, regional, State and National Parks, National Forests and general public land, National and State Wildlife Refuges and Wilderness Areas, Marine Protected Areas (ocean sites), recreation areas, lands secured under conservation easements, and more. PAD-US also includes military lands.

The following are some of the types (“designations”) of lands and waters in PAD-US:

  • National Park
  • National Monument
  • National Forest
  • National Public Lands
  • National Wildlife Refuge
  • Wilderness Area
  • Wild and Scenic River
  • Marine Protected Area
  • National Recreation Area
  • National Lakeshore or Seashore
  • Area of Critical Environmental Concern
  • Recreation Management Area
  • Historic or Cultural Area
  • State Park
  • State Conservation Area
  • State Resource Management Area
  • Local Park (city, county, regional/special district)
  • Local Conservation Area
  • Local Historic or Cultural Area
  • Conservation Easement
  • Agricultural Easement
  • Forest Stewardship Easement


Feature Classes in PAD-US

One of the most important aspects of PAD-US is the structure of its feature classes. Broadly, the PAD-US geodatabase has two categories of feature classes:

  • Individual feature classes for ‘Fee’, ‘Easement’, ‘Designation’, ‘Proclamation’, and ‘Marine Protected Area’ boundaries; and,
  • A combined feature class that merges ‘Fee’, ‘Easement’, and ‘Designation’ boundaries.

As illustrated in the graphic above, the five individual PAD-US feature classes include the following data:

  • Fee – Open space lands owned outright by public Federal, State, and local agencies, nonprofits, or privately owned lands (note that even in the current PAD-US data, the owning agency is not always specified in the source data that PAD-US uses, while managing agency is almost always provided – this is a focus for ongoing improvement work in PAD-US).
  • Easements – Conservation and open space easements provided as is by the National Conservation Easement Database (NCED), including those on private as well as public lands (some easements are not provided to PAD-US due to NCED procedures on confidentiality).
  • Designations – Boundaries of policy-designated areas, such as Wilderness, Wild & Scenic Rivers, National Monuments and others – these boundaries sometimes do not align with fee ownerships, due to their delineation in laws or regulations.
  • Proclamations – Boundaries of the administrative area of National Forests, Parks, Wildlife Refuges and other lands. These are not ownership lines but are used for agency administration purposes (note that some commercial mapping providers and others incorrectly use these boundaries to show protected areas and in doing so often show large areas of private lands as part of public lands). Some proclamation boundaries can cover extremely large areas of private land, while others are close to ownership boundaries. In any case, it’s important not to consider proclamation boundaries as reflecting actual land ownership – they’re just for agency administration purposes.
  • Marine – Boundaries of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and reserves managed by NOAA as well as equivalent designations for areas managed by States; this layer also includes vast Outer Continental Shelf areas managed by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM).

Working with feature classes

Choosing whether to work with individual or combined feature classes is an important early decision – individual classes can be much more efficient for narrow tasks, while using the combined class gives you more power, but also has more complexity due to the overlaying of all the individual feature classes.

For example, the ‘Fee‘ feature class can provide a general footprint of land ownership and management boundaries with minimal overlaps. However, the combined feature class would be more appropriate for a comprehensive analysis on biodiversity protection (through ‘ GAP Status Codes’ ), public access, or other criteria. The combined feature class, which includes overlapping designations, easements, Marine Protected Areas, and proclamation boundaries, may also provide more detailed information on how an area is managed. Congressionally-designated Wilderness Areas, for instance, may overlap fee owned lands (such as a National Forests owned by the U.S. Forest Service). The combined feature class can also be used to select specific designation types that may exist in multiple feature classes.

It’s also important to realize that overlaps may exist within feature classes due to aggregating many sources of data. There are fewer such overlaps (and slivers) with every release of PAD-US, but you may still encounter some areas where these exist. And in the ‘Designation’ layer, many designations overlap by their very nature (Wilderness Areas in National Monuments, etc. – these are sometimes drawn in legislation with boundaries different from ownership areas).

About PAD-US Layer Files

USGS has prepared web services with PAD-US layer files, which have pre-defined, standardized colors and selections, covering a wide range of mapping needs (these same layer files are used to set up several PAD-US web services). These layer files can be edited by GIS users and are also included in all PAD-US data downloads.

Use these layer files for a quick start in almost any mapping project.

Detailed Descriptions of Layer Files

Details on the definition of each of these layers are in this table:

Layer Name Description Best Used For
Manager Type Coarse level land manager description from “Agency Type” Domain, “Manager Type”

Field (for example, Federal, State, Local Gov, Private).

Broad categorization of manager levels, for general depictions of who manages what areas.
Manager Name Fine level manager or administrative agency name standardized for the Nation (USFS,

BLM, State Fish and Wildlife, State Parks and Rec, City, NGO, etc.). DOD lands shown with outline.

Categorization by manager name, with detailed federal managers and generic state/local/other managers.
Federal Management Agencies Describes federal managers or administrative agencies by name. DOD lands shown as outline. Use to depict individual federal management agencies (no state, local or private lands).
Protection Status by GAP Status Code A measure of management intent to permanently protect biodiversity. GAP 1&2 areas

are primarily managed for biodiversity, GAP 3 are managed for multiple uses including

conservation and extraction, GAP 4 no known mandate for biodiversity protection.

Gap 1 and 2 have protections for biodiversity; Gap 3 is

managed for multiple uses; Gap 4 lands have no

known mandate for protection.

Protected Areas by Manager All protected areas classified by GAP Status Code protection level and manager type. Allows users to see extent of biodiversity protection and multiple use areas by manager type (federal, state, etc.).
Protection Mechanism Category The protection mechanism category including fee simple, easements, leases and

agreements, and Marine Areas. Proclamation category shown as gray outline.

Shows categories of land tenure for all protected areas, and also includes marine areas.
Public Access General level of public access permitted in the area – Open, Restricted (permit, seasonal), Closed, Unknown. Use to show general categories of public access (however, not all areas have been locally reviewed).
Proclamation and Other Planning Boundaries Includes boundaries that provide additional context. Administrative agency name standardized for the nation (DOD, FWS, NPS, USFS). Boundaries shown with outline only, as proclamation data do not depict actual ownership or management. Use to show outline of agency proclamation, approved acquisition or other planning boundaries where internal ownership is not depicted.
DOD Boundaries Department of Defense boundaries only. Use to show outline of DOD boundaries.
Fee Managers Fine level manager or administrative agency name standardized for the Nation (USFS, BLM, State Fish and Wildlife, State Parks and Rec, City, NGO, etc.). From Fee feature Class only. Categorization by manager name, with detailed federal managers and generic state/local/other managers. From Fee Feature Class.
Federal Fee Managers (Authoritative Data) Describes federal managers or administrative agencies by name. DOD lands shown as outline. Only Authoritative Data from Federal Data Sources are included. Use to depict individual federal management agencies (no state, local or private lands), authoritative data only.
Fee Topology (Must not Overlap) “Must Not Overlap” Topology assessment of the Fee feature class. Use to identify major overlaps between in Fee data, FED/FED, or FED/State.

Tips for GIS Users

Q: What’s the best way to get started mapping if I don’t know much about PAD-US?

A: Start by exploring the USGS PAD-US Data Explorer or ProtectedLands.net web mappers to explore the data quickly and see the many ways it can be visualized. These will provide attractive options for starting to display and analyze PAD-US data.

Q: How can I map all the managers of land?

A: Manager-based mapping is highly recommended in PAD-US, as the manager field (Mang_Name) is more completely filled in than the owner field (work is underway on the owner field). The best approach here may be to use one of the pre-made PAD-US layer files: “Mid Agency Level” and “Fine Agency Level” layer files have individual agency names for Federal managers and generic names for other managers; “General Agency Level” has generic level names for all managers (Federal, State, etc.). You can of course choose “Mang_Name” as the field to categorize in any GIS software and define your own colors.

Q: What if I want to view or select just lands managed by Federal agencies?

A: To view or select lands managed by Federal agencies, use this query: “Mang_Type” = ‘FED’.

To show only those lands managed by a specific agency (for example, the National Park Service), use this query: “Mang_Name” = ‘NPS’. Note that a layer file is available for just Federally-managed lands/waters.

Q: What about lands managed by one agency but owned by others?

A: This query shows lands that are managed by the US Fish & Wildlife Service, but are owned by different entities, including private landowners: “Mang_Name” = ‘FWS’ AND “Own_Name” <> ‘FWS’.

Q: What about seeing easements managed by one agency?

A: Use a definition query to filter to easements, and manager name to the desired agency name. For example, use this approach to show easements managed by the US Fish & Wildlife Service: “Mang_Name” = ‘FWS’ AND “Category” = ‘Easement’.

Q: What’s the best field to use for names of parks/preserves?

A:Unit_Name“, which is standardized (specific for Federal agencies, but may be shortened for State and local holdings). The “Local_Name” field sometimes has more detail, and even for Federal agencies may be more specific than the “Unit_Name” – but “Local_Name” can also have inconsistencies, since it is taken as is from contributing agencies by PAD-US and not normalized to naming conventions. You may need to experiment here, depending on your needs.

Q: I’m interested in seeing State-designated Marine Protected Areas – how do I do that?

A: Use the Marine feature class and set a query for: “Mang_Type” = ‘STAT’ (state). Note that there are various types of local Marine Protected Areas.

Q: What’s the difference between GAP Status Codes and IUCN Categories?

A: Gap Analysis Project (GAP) Status Codes are specific to the U.S. and include identification of both important conservation areas and other managed public lands (multiple-use land such as working forests or rangelands). Four codes are used for GAP: 1, 2, 3 & 4. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) uses a slightly different ranking system, based on six management categories, all focused on conservation status (not including other managed lands), to highlight areas of global biodiversity importance. Not all protected areas in PAD-US fall into IUCN categories.

Q: I’m seeing slivers and overlaps – what’s up with that?

A: PAD-US has made great strides in securing data that is more accurately aligned to itself, with each new version showing huge improvements. But PAD-US is an aggregation of others’ data and we depend on the managing agencies for that data’s accuracy. Among Federal agencies, PAD-US has been working to encourage revisions that move closer to a seamless parcel layer (where each property is aligned to others), with good progress but still work ahead. State datasets can bring additional complications – some are well organized to State parcel boundaries, many others haven’t reached that stage yet. In addition, State parcel (or even just agency ownership) data may not align well with Federal data that has been based on the Public Land Survey System (PLSS), the official national parcel framework. Overall, parcels and alignment is a major focus for the Federal Geographic Data Committee and many other groups, and is a much larger question than just PAD-US. We continue to encourage overall coordination toward the long term goal of alignment.

Q: Who can I talk to about PAD-US?

A: The PAD-US team is small but efficient. We make every effort to answer questions and help our users.

You can contact the PAD-US team at pad-us@usgs.gov. When you’re emailing, it’s very helpful to tell us: Version of PAD-US you’re working with, GIS software and version you’re using, how you’re attempting to use PAD-US, and then describe your issue and how best to contact you.


Individual PAD-US team contact information: 

Roger Johnson, PAD-US Data Manager / FGDC Federal Lands Workgroup Chair

Phone: 720-234-2845

Email: rjohnson@usgs.gov


Mason Croft, PAD-US Technical Specialist

Phone: 208-301-8288

Email: mcroft@usgs.gov


Mackenzie Case, GIS & Policy Analyst, Boise State University (Cooperator), State Lands Workgroup Chair

Phone: 208-520-6923

Email: mackenziecase@boisestate.edu