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Know the West

Public lands “crown jewels” languish for lack of funding


On a balmy spring day in Ironwood Forest National Monument, volunteers work up a sweat as they plant native bushes and sweep away the vehicle tracks that cut across the Sonoran Desert landscape. Arizona's Ironwood Forest is one of 15 national monuments in the Bureau of Land Management's National Landscape Conservation System. The monument already relies on volunteers for much of its restoration work, but it may become even more dependent in the coming months: The National Landscape Conservation System faces a 15 percent budget cut this year, the largest since its inception in 2000.

The little-known program was created under Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to recognize and protect vast expanses of BLM land. The system oversees wild and scenic rivers, historic trails, wilderness areas, national conservation areas, and national monuments; 800 units in all, spanning some 26 million acres. It was intended to put the BLM on par with the National Park Service as a manager of awe-inspiring public lands.

But the National Landscape Conservation System has been losing ground on funding, and will continue to do so under President Bush's proposed 2008 budget, which slashes funds by $8.56 million from the last enacted 2006 budget. The system already struggles with understaffing and growing visitor use. Now it's likely to be even more hard-pressed to protect archaeological sites, clean up illegal dumping, and perform needed restoration work. Ironically, the cuts come as the administration touts proposed increases to the National Park Service budget. And funding for oil and gas projects on BLM lands is also slated to rise; for example, $12.9 million has been earmarked to facilitate leasing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The National Landscape Conservation System has strong supporters in Congress, though. In February, members of a house caucus on the beleaguered system spoke out against the cuts, as did Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo. In a press release, Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz, a caucus co-chair, said funding should be increased, not slashed, for "the crown jewels of our public lands." In March, caucus members will host a briefing to drum up more congressional support.

In the meantime, land managers are racking their brains for ways to make do with less. At Ironwood Forest, which has to contend with illegal immigration and growing use as nearby cities expand, Manager Scott Berkenfield says that means "looking for as many partners on as many projects as possible."