After a late-February snowstorm left western Colorado frosted with white, I decided to check out the cross-country skiing at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. It turned out to be an experience I can only call "manicured."
I drove to the visitor center on a paved road, then skied along a well marked trail to safely fenced overlooks with signs explaining the geology and native plants. The views of the 2,000-foot chasm were stunning, but the whole experience felt too controlled for my taste. I wanted something wilder, something without T-shirts and postcards for sale, and I found it a few miles farther north, in the much less developed Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area.
The Gunnison Gorge area is part of something called the National Landscape Conservation System, the nation's newest system of public lands. Created by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt in 2000, the system was meant to protect the "crown jewels" of the Bureau of Land Management. Before its birth, the most spectacular chunks of BLM land were often set aside as national monuments -- then taken away from the agency and turned over to the National Park Service.
Babbitt meant the National Landscape Conservation System to change that, to give the BLM equal standing with the Park Service as a steward of some of the West's most awe-inspiring lands. As Babbitt said, with this system "(the BLM) can become the greatest American land management agency, the one that sets the standard for protecting landscapes ... and bringing people together to live in harmony with the land."
Despite that bold vision, for the past eight years Babbitt's brainchild has languished in bureaucratic limbo. Everything changed this spring, though, when Congress gave permanent protection to some 27 million acres of wild and scenic rivers, historic trails, wilderness areas, national conservation areas and national monuments under the National Landscape Conservation System. No future administration will be able to dismantle the system unless Congress approves. The codifying should also lead to greater recognition of these places and the kind of funding for them that makes sense. Although the system hosts about one-third of the recreation on BLM lands, it gets less than 5 percent of the agency's budget.
In mid-May, I got to know my local national conservation area by raft, and there I found the rougher-edged experience I was looking for. Just downstream of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, a dozen of us launched into the Gunnison River, courtesy of Trout Unlimited. To reach the river, we'd driven 45 minutes on a rutted, rocky dirt road, then hiked a mile on a narrow trail that dropped past huge sandstone cliffs through a pinon-juniper forest. There was an outhouse at the put-in, but no boat ramp or interpretive signs. Our group floated downstream for 15 miles, grinning our way over bouncy little rapids. We saw the tumbledown cabins left by uranium prospectors, watched swallows and ouzels and a far-off golden eagle, caught and released fat browns and rainbows.
These public lands aren't newly acquired; most have been under BLM management for decades. But the National Landscape Conservation System takes a fresh approach to their management, setting aside sweeping landscapes and entire ecosystems rather than isolated pockets. In Nevada, for instance, Black Rock Desert / High Rock Canyon Emigrant Trails is one of the few places in the West where you can retrace the steps of the pioneers and see the land exactly as they did, from mountain range to mountain range, says Brian O'Donnell, executive director of an advocacy group called the National Conservation System Foundation. "It's not just wagon ruts in a sea of development," O'Donnell says.
Utah's 1.8 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and California's 500,000-acre Trinity Alps Wilderness Area are both vast wild areas, preserved for their ecological and recreational value. Other units reflect other priorities: Colorado's Canyons of the Ancients National Monument protects ancient Indian ruins, for example, and New Mexico's Prehistoric Trackways National Monument conserves Paleozoic animal tracks and fossils.
Unlike most BLM holdings, these lands can't be leased for new energy development or grazing. But the system's emphasis on community involvement and support means that existing mining, drilling and grazing are grandfathered in to preserve historical working landscapes. Visitor centers, when they exist, are typically located in a nearby town, so that tourists don't spend all their time -- and money -- on federal lands.
That keeps the experience wilder, too. "It's the sportsman's Park Service," says O'Donnell. "These are places where you can hunt and fish and disappear." And these are just the kind of places we need more of in the increasingly controlled and regimented West -- no pavement, no postcards, and no T-shirts for sale.
Jodi Peterson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org) in Paonia, Colorado, where she serves as associate editor.