More conservation needed: Our report card for America’s Conservation Lands

Canyons of the Ancients in Colorado. Courtesy BLM.

Canyons of the Ancients National Monument — a treasure trove of Puebloan artifacts in Colorado, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument — the last place mapped in the Lower 48 States, Las Cienegas National Conservation Area — where the history of ranching and protection of grassland bird species come together in Arizona. These are a small sample of the vast landscapes in the National Landscape Conservation System (Conservation Lands).

A decade ago the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) was entrusted with these lands — the nation’s newest collection of conservation lands. Like the National Park System and the National Wildlife Refuge System, the Conservation Lands play a critical role in protecting some of our most spectacular landscapes and wilderness areas. Ten years later, we are at a crossroads of determining the future of the Conservation Lands as well as evaluating the current status of management and planning for conservation in the 21st century.

The Wilderness Society has been leading the effort to promote the long term care and protection of these lands. To see if the National Landscape Conservation System is fully meeting its official mission — “to conserve, protect, and restore these nationally significant landscapes that have outstanding cultural, ecological and scientific values for the benefit of current and future generations” — we have conducted an in-depth assessment of 15 Conservation Lands units, including National Monuments and National Conservation Areas.

The National Landscape Conservation System includes 886 federally recognized areas on approximately 27 million acres of National Monuments, National Conservation Areas, Wilderness Areas, Wilderness Study Areas, Wild and Scenic Rivers, National Scenic and Historic Trails, and other conservation designations. Click here to view maps of those units.

Five years ago we assessed the National Landscape Conservation System and offered recommendations for improvement. Now, we have taken a second look to see how far the BLM has come and how much further they still need to go.

Our assessment gave a cumulative grade of a C+. That is an improvement over the first assessment when there was just not enough information available to accurately assess all of the seven issue areas we examined. A C+ however is still not where the BLM should be and we should continue to strive for an A+ in management of our public lands. The American people expect the National Conservation Lands to be managed with the same commitment to resource conservation as the National Parks and the National Wildlife Refuges.

Unfortunately the National Landscape Conservation System is still faced with problems at some units, including:

  • a lack of staffing
  • inconsistent management plans
  • a lack of preparation for climate change

For example, the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, with over a million visitors, has only three staff assigned to it and has lost four Park Rangers jobs since 2008. The total appropriation for Red Rock in recent years is $151,000. A place with more than a million visitors deserves proper funding. The BLM must quickly and accurately reflect the needs of the National Conservation Lands in its budget to Congress. Only roughly 4% of the BLM’s budget goes to our National Conservation Lands, yet these lands make up 10 percent of all BLM territory. This funding shortfall undercuts conservation of these lands and impacts visitor experience.

We also believe that greater direction is needed from Department of Interior on how these areas are planning for various aspects of resource conservation. In the absence of this leadership we see Resource Management Plans (RMPs) that are not consistent across the units of the National Landscape Conservation System, with some RMPs falling woefully short of conservation. For example, the plan for the Upper Missouri River Breaks, designated to preserve the experience of the Lewis and Clark expedition’s exploration of this remote and stunning area, does not even protect the river from motor boats. And this area is now being touted for the six airstrips that have been designated in the RMP — a far cry from the remote backcountry that led to its protection.

Our assessment provides additional recommendations, 10 in total, to move the National Landscape Conservation System forward. The Wilderness Society believes that the future of these lands rests on a strong foundation of consistent and conservation-oriented planning for that future.

Vermilion Cliffs National Monument. Courtesy BLM.We envision that by 2025, when we celebrate the 25th birthday, the BLM is managing a robust system of conservation lands where ecosystem sustainability is the top priority. In this vision, stressors such as off-road vehicles, energy development and overgrazing are greatly reduced, thereby protecting and enhancing the land’s natural and cultural values, especially in the face of climate change. Our vision also includes fiscal health for the National Conservation Lands with leadership driving the science, policy, and management.

To achieve this success on the 25th anniversary, the BLM needs to identify and embrace a vision for the National Landscape Conservation System that puts conservation at the core of every action it takes. This vision should include management of these lands with minimal on-site visitor infrastructure, minimal road networks, and at the forefront of climate adaptation science and resource management.

As the National Conservation Lands continue to grow in size, diversity of natural and cultural resources protected and in numbers of American’s who hike, hunt, float or ride in these natural wonders, a basic set of principles should provide the basis for all future actions. In adhering to these principles, the future of these lands for our children will be assured.

Our full assessment can be viewed here.

Canyons of the Ancients in Colorado. Courtesy BLM.
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument in Arizona. Courtesy BLM.