Bureau of livestock, mining ... and parks?

 

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

When Al Gore joined President Clinton in 1996 in announcing the creation of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah, the vice president called it a "great monument to stewardship."

Yet by presidential decree the steward in this case was not the National Park Service; the new monument became the responsibility of the Bureau of Land Management, an agency focused more on mining and livestock grazing than parks and preservation.

If the Department of Interior has its way, the BLM may soon be responsible for more park-quality lands, since Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt recently proposed a BLM-managed national monument in northern Arizona.

Putting the BLM in charge of national monuments is part of a trend toward blurring the lines among the roles of the federal land management agencies. Now, as both the Forest Service and the BLM make outdoor recreation and land conservation their primary goals, some see the trend as a threat to the National Park Service.

"I freely confess that when the Grand Staircase-Escalante announcement was made I had a visceral reaction: Who in the hell are the BLM to be running a national monument?" says Ron Everhart, deputy director of operations for the NPS Intermountain Region, during a recent forum on the monument's management. "More often, we are finding other agencies beginning to take a more active role in the missions that have been the province of the NPS."

What some call competition could be an attempt by the administration and Congress to get the agencies to cooperate. Many within Interior saw the selection of the BLM to run the monument as an attempt by Babbitt to "green up" the BLM and provide a new direction to an agency that has had trouble finding its niche in the increasingly non-extractive New West. But others wonder if the BLM's culture of livestock and mining will be able to adapt to the new role.

"It's too bad, when it comes to good stewardship, we think it's something anyone can do," says Mark Peterson, Rocky Mountain regional director of the National Parks and Conservation Association. "Look at interpretation - the Park Service invented it, they know how to educate the public. Where in BLM is there expertise in interpretation for this new monument? They are going to have to invent it from the bottom up. It's like asking US West to build automobiles."

Another question is whether BLM has the financial resources to do justice to the title "national monument."

"How are you going to put BLM in charge of protecting this monument when Arches, an 80,000-acre national park, has more rangers than BLM has in the entire state of Utah?" says Walt Dabney, former superintendent of Canyonlands and Arches National Parks.

That very lack of government presence could explain why Forest Service and BLM lands are enjoying an upswing in visitation.

"It's the people of this country who allowed this monument, to go to BLM. Because in their minds, if the (Park Service) got it we would close it down," says Rob Arnberger, superintendent of Grand Canyon National Park. "It seems the public views parks in two ways, either as destination resorts or as places where you can't go anywhere without a permit."

Yet many of the same recreation permits required in national parks are now required on Forest Service or BLM lands. "Management of people is becoming the norm for all these agencies," says Dabney. "It has to be."

Christopher Smith is a reporter for the Salt Lake Tribune.

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