Expanding populations put wilderness at risk

Ben spent weeks mapping the geologic structures in Huerfano County Colorado. Photo by Ben Friedman.

Conservation lands offer a solution

There are a few significant places I keep in my heart, places that were meaningful to me during childhood and adolescence that fostered curiosity and sparked lifelong values.

At the top of my list — Lower Rhoda Pond in Columbia County, New York, where I learned to swim, canoe and skip stones. Sitka, Alaska, where I first saw bald eagles and humpback whales. Huerfano County in Colorado, where I spent three weeks mapping the geologic structures of the Sangre De Cristo mountain range.

My experience and the rewards I feel from being outdoors instill in me a sense of responsibility, a need to be an advocate and protector for wilderness. However, with 2.2 million acres of land lost to development per year, the responsibility is shaping my career path. We are all faced with a question; how can we ensure that our iconic landscapes are preserved for future generations?

This sense of stewardship has brought me to The Wilderness Society as an advocate for the National Landscape Conservation System, also known as the National Conservation Lands. Now, when I take time to explore our country’s wild places, I return to Washington, DC with the fuel I need to be their advocate — and this young and unique conservation system represents our country’s greatest tool to save America’s last wild places.

These lands are unique because they are on federally owned land that is vastly unexplored. No American had even explored the Grand Canyon until after the Civil War. Whole mountain ranges were still being named in the 1870s. And in 1950, the cumulative population of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, and Nevada, the heart of the National Conservation Lands, was less than the metropolitan area of Phoenix today. Geology field work and a post-graduation road trip led me to the Southwest where I marveled at the untrammeled beauty of high-altitude aspen forest and multicolored deserts. Yet at the same time, I observed the destructive force that urban sprawl is bringing to the Western landscape.

However, the wildness that characterizes the National Conservation Lands is under threat. Western state population growth over the past 60 years has been prolific. Although the US average population growth rate from 1960 to 2000 was 56.9 percent, states in the west expanded at rates far higher. Arizona, Colorado, Utah, and California all more than doubled in population. Nevada’s population sextupled, a growth rate of 601.1 percent. As people encroach into western wilderness, their impact is felt on the Conservation Lands. Off-road vehicle use has carved tire tracks into fragile desert ecosystems, and vandals have stolen or destroyed priceless artifacts from unique archaeological sites that tell a story about the first inhabitants in our country.

The National Conservation Lands present a solution to the question, how do we save our last remaining wilderness areas? By supporting the National Conservation Lands, we ensure the existence of wild places that our children and their children can explore and learn from. In the coming months we plan to evaluate how far we have come over the last ten years with the National Landscape Conservation System and will issue our own recommendations for the future management of lands within this system.

We hope our report of these issues will serve as a guide to the Bureau of Land Management as they face the same tough questions we conservationists do. We also hope our report will help the public better understand the National Conservation Lands and get more involved in their protection. The landscapes that comprise the Conservation Lands are some of the last remaining places where people can experience a sense of solitude, discovery, and exploration in the United States, and I’m thrilled to be working on their behalf.