Pop quiz: What national conservation land is nearest you?


The National Landscape Conservation System -- America's youngest permanently protected collection of public lands -- celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, and grassroots organizers and BLM managers are meeting in Nevada to plan for the next 10 years in the "sportsman's park service."

National conservation lands include 27 million acres of national monuments, conservation areas, wilderness study areas, wild and scenic rivers, and historic trails in the 11 Western states plus Alaska (and one historic trail in Maryland). Unlike national parks, "National conservation lands tend to be lower elevation, more desert than forest," says Conservation Lands Foundation director Brian O'Donnell. These designations protect cultural resources in the context of the surrounding landscape, so they are big. And they offer "a more self-directed experience," O'Donnell adds. Visitors to conservation lands find dirt trails, wide-open country, and solitude. You'd think us rugged Westerners would be in favor of setting aside unpaved spots free of Yellowstone's bear-jams or the Grand Canyon's helicopter tours -- spots where we can tote our firearms and catch a few fish -- but actually locals have resisted the designations, opposing road removal or grazing restrictions the BLM imposed to protect natural values.

Before the upcoming meetings in Nevada, you might brush up on the controversial history of the National Landscape Conservation System in the HCN archives. Here's a start:

In 2003, Michelle Nijhuis described 15 national monuments included in "the BLM's conservation kingdom" to accompany her story surrounding the difficulty of protecting the largest monument -- Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah.

In 2004, Nijhuis returned with an update on the lack of funding for these "crown jewels." And Michelle Blank covered the threat of a massive BLM budget slash under the Bush Administration in 2007.

Ray Ring wrote an op-ed for HCN when the National Landscape Conservation System officially received permanent protection under the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act in 2009, and Jodi Peterson led readers on a float through the Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area later that year.

As a next step, on November 12 - 14 the Conservation Lands Foundation is hosting a "rendezvous" in Las Vegas, Nev., to help build continuity between grassroots organizations working to protect their local national conservation lands and to make policy recommendations to help the BLM. Then on November 15 and 16 the BLM will hold a summit to plan for the next 10 years.

To learn more about the national conservation lands in your state visit the BLM's web page: http://www.blm.gov/nlcs.html

Or to find an organization in your area that is working to protect national conservation lands, contact the Conservation Lands Foundation by calling 970-247-0807 or writing to info@ourconservationlegacy.org.

The BLM relies on volunteers to build and restore trails and take care of these lands, so look for opportunities in your area to pitch in. Plus, as always, keep an eye on High Country News for the latest updates about these little-known lands.

Images of California Coastal National Monument and Vermilion Cliffs National Monument (by Bob Wick) from the BLM National Landscape Conservation System.

Emilene Ostlind is a High Country News intern

Permantly protected public lands? Maybe. Maybe not.
Wayne Hare
Wayne Hare
Dec 24, 2010 09:47 AM
Nice article Emily. Thanks for bringing attention to an amazing government pulic lands program. NLCS units strike an almost perfect balance between wilderness, where almost all you can do is hike; National Parks where almost all you can do is look; and traditional BLM land where almost all you can do (or get away with)is...almost anything you want. You describe these lands as enjoying permanent protection. As a ranger in one of these special NLCS units, I want to point out that there really is no such thing as 'permanently protected'. The unique syetem of public lands that are available for us to enjoy are only protected for so long as that protection is supported by the American public. Once, and if, that support no longer exist, the protections will disolve. Public lands are always and forever under heavy pressure to be converted to something more 'worthwhile'. Usually some extractive industry, or unsustainable form of recreation. Look how heavily industry lobbied to drill and log right within National Parks during the Bush years. Look how very close Paul Hoffman, National Park Service deputy assistant secretary under Bush, came to actually re-writing the Park Servcie's mission and Organic Act to transform national parks into a motorized playground unrecognizable compared to today. Look at the intense, and so far unsuccessful, lobbying by Utah legislators to roll back the Grand Staircase Escalante; or to take over and re-open roads managed by and within National Parks. Look at the 'No More Wilderness' policy of Gale Norton, Bush's Interior Secretary, which - based on yet another Utah challenge - barred the BLM from protecting lands with wilderness qualities. Look at the push to privatize so many of the services currently provided by rangers and other public servants who generally work for an ideal, versus the private sector that generally works for profit. So far, most - but not all - challenges are turned back, sooner or later. But again, only because the American public supports protection of public lands. Not because these lands enjoy some magical and mythical permanent protection. I wish they were permanent so that, once protected, we could move on to someting else. And...ever the advocate for ethnic diversity in involvement in public lands...how strong will public support be in the latter stages of this century when the new majority, few of whom currently use public lands, become the voting majority? Again, thanks for the attention to the NLCS. But never, never, never let down your vigilance.