In 2010, I joined then-BLM head Bob Abbey, Bruce Babbitt, other federal officials and citizen land-advocates for a roundtable discussion in Boulder, Colo., honoring the NLCS's 10th anniversary. Sitting at a long wooden table in the redbrick tower of the University of Colorado's Old Main, we talked about our hopes for BLM's future.

Someone praised the NLCS as a kind of sportsman's Park Service, saying he likes how approachable much of it is, accessible to many kinds of users, not just long-distance wilderness hikers. The BLM manager sitting beside him said she wasn't sure how to treat her national conservation lands. Should she manage them differently from the other lands she oversaw? But she loved the idea. I nervously listened to each, hoping no one could sense my heart pounding. Why had they invited wilderness riffraff like me to this not-quite-ivory tower conclave? Comic relief? When my turn came, I said something like, "Sometimes I pull off the road and I just start walking. This is something you can pretty much do only on BLM."

The table was quiet. I swear Babbitt checked his watch. He is a hero of mine, and I felt nervous speaking in front of him. The former governor of Arizona, he was born there and grew up in a ranch-and-trading-post family surrounded by unbroken public land, some of the Lower 48's wildest country. There, he learned to appreciate unoccupied, untrammeled places. We could at least share that.

I was on the spot, though, so I kept talking -- anxiously trying to explain how these public lands are at the core of Western identity and culture. The sense of openness is unique, I said. In the East, it's hard to even find it at all, while out here, it's all around you. If you didn't protect it, I said, I'd have to move to a different country. I need, we need, places beyond the crush of humanity, beyond permits and ceaseless regulations, where you can carry yourself across a landscape as a human being. Swallowed by industry, roads, or parking lots, it would be just like everything else.

There were a few polite nods. One man, however, smiled broadly and looked me right in the eye. It was Carl Rountree, head of the NLCS. Afterward, he took me aside and, rather than policy, began talking about places: The deep woods of southwest Oregon, the scaly badlands of Wyoming, the marching saguaro forests of south-central Arizona.

I hadn't expected passion at this level of government. I thought Rountree would be a paper-pusher climbing his way through the agency. But our conversations continued over the next two years as we sent notes back and forth from the national conservation lands we visited. Places like Gold Butte, and Ironwood Forest National Monument near Tucson, with its crowds of saguaros and ragged-top peaks, and the lava flows of Oregon Badlands carpeted in ponderosa pine needles. He told me I'd have to see the verdant mountains of Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument in southwest Oregon, and the wild coastlines with literally tens of thousands of rock-points, sea-stacks and islands inside California Coastal National Monument.

"I just love to get out into these areas and stand in a place where it is so quiet it's just overpowering," Rountree said. "There's this incredible sense I've never been able to quite put into words. These monuments and national conservation areas are being managed to provide opportunities for self-discovery, getting out by yourself without being told what you should experience, where you should be experiencing it."

Rountree mentioned Agua Fria National Monument in central Arizona, then asked, "You've been there, right?"

"Only a little, around the edges," I said, embarrassed I had never gone more than a mile or two into its 70,900 acres.

"You need to talk to Rem Hawes," Rountree said.