Managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), National Conservation Lands were established in 2000 to conserve, protect and restore nationally significant lands recognized for their outstanding cultural, ecological and scientific values.
The 30 million acres of National Conservation Lands are natural and cultural treasures, and include National Monuments, National Conservation Areas, Wilderness Areas, Wilderness Study Areas, Wild and Scenic Rivers, National Scenic and Historic Trails and other protected places.
The Wilderness Society’s Third Assessment found improvements in planning, protection of wild lands and visitor management over the past five years and over the 15 years since the creation of the system and the corresponding evaluations by The Wilderness Society. Now, nearly all designated Conservation Lands are better known and appreciated by the public. However, the lack of adequate funding for National Conservation Lands continues to hamper BLM’s ability to improve leadership, increase law enforcement, restore ecosystem health and protect cultural resources.
For example, fragile archaeological sites and rock art around both the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area in Nevada and the Sonoran Desert National Monument in Arizona are continually vandalized due to a lack of law enforcement and poorly managed off-road vehicle uses near these cultural sites. Although designated almost 20 years ago, the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah still does not have a grazing management plan, forcing the agency to rely on management plans from the early 1980s. Other problems in these areas include lack of consistent leadership and persistent habitat fragmentation by roads, as well as inadequate inventories of cultural resources, special status species or non-native, invasive species. These consistent problems keep BLM from coming up with needed protective management strategies.
“Our BLM conservation lands face continuous threats – ranging from underfunding to complete defunding to threats of undoing the system altogether, as well as development of backcountry areas and damage to our shared heritage of cultural resources,” said Nada Culver, Director of the BLM Action Center at The Wilderness Society. “It’s high time our elected leaders start listening to the American people, who want to protect the cultural treasures, wildlife and clean air and water that make our public lands the premier destinations for visitors from around the world.”
Examples of National Conservation Lands managed by BLM include:
- The Iditarod Trail in Alaska, used by thousands of winter recreation enthusiasts, subsistence hunters, inter-village travelers and long-distance winter races.
- The Canyons of the Ancients National Monument in southwest Colorado near Mesa Verde National Park, which contains the greatest known density of archaeological sites in the United States.
- The Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness Area in New Mexico, a landscape of visually stunning badlands and hoodoos.
- The Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument in Montana, a living museum of the historic Lewis and Clark expedition across the Northwest.
In The Wilderness Society’s “Third Assessment Report,” the group urges Congress and the Administration to improve management for the National Conservation Lands by:
- Prioritizing landscape restoration and fostering ecosystem and species health, along with reducing the impact of roads and development on wildlife habitat and wildness.
- Increasing BLM’s budget to improve law enforcement, leadership and actual management across all National Conservation Lands.
- Expanding the National Conservation Lands to include all important and still unprotected BLM managed landscapes and waterbodies across the West.
“There are some in Congress, such as House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop, who believe the National Conservation Lands to be ‘unnecessary’ and have proposed to defund the System entirely,” said Culver. “This report shows the need for the opposite. We need more funding and better management of our BLM conservation lands to provide the American people with more access to hunting, fishing, camping, research, restoration and for cleaner air and water throughout the West.”
The Wilderness Society is the leading conservation organization working to protect wilderness and inspire Americans to care for our wild places. Founded in 1935, and now with more than 700,000 members and supporters, The Wilderness Society has led the effort to permanently protect 109 million acres of wilderness and to ensure sound management of our shared national lands. www.wilderness.org.
Quotations from Local Advocates
Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, Oregon
The Soda Mountain Wilderness Council’s Dave Willis spearheaded the multi-group campaign to establish southwestern Oregon’s Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument 15 years ago and has monitored the area for more than 30 years. Willis says the problems with National Conservation Lands can’t just be blamed on a slim budget. “The 2015 Conservation Lands Assessment rates BLM’s management of the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument as mostly mediocre,” he says. “BLM has done a good job of acquiring Monument in-holdings from willing sellers here via the Land and Water Conservation Fund. We hope Congress will restore that important program. And BLM has repaired land damaged by old jeep trails in the congressionally designated wilderness of the Monument’s southern backcountry where motor vehicles are illegal. But beyond those good things, BLM’s conservation deficiency here is generally a sad fact.”
“Cascade-Siskiyou is the only national monument explicitly established to protect biodiversity. Yet the Monument manager’s passion seems to be commercial logging – not permitted in the Monument itself – on BLM lands outside the Monument for which he is also field manager. And the Monument’s staff ecologist was not re-hired after he produced a study showing cattle grazing impacts to be incompatible with Monument protection – a study BLM has functionally ignored. This is tragic because Cascade-Siskiyou is not ‘just’ outstandingly biodiverse – its public lands also hold together by a thread the ecologically strategic biological connectivity between the globally significant Siskiyou Mountains and southern Cascade Range.
Cascade-Siskiyou needs not only better conservation management by BLM but – according to many dozens of scientists concerned about the effects of climate change here – bigger boundaries to safeguard and make more resilient the ‘spectacular diversity’ of species and important biological corridor the Monument was established to protect. Whether BLM as an agency is up to the job – or, despite some very dedicated and conservation-minded BLM staff, whether the local Medford BLM office even wants to be up to the protection job here – is still up for grabs. After 15 years, local BLM managers still suffer from a Cascade-Siskiyou conservation vision/priority deficit.”
“Like most of the West, southwestern Utah has been going through many changes over the past decades. This report shows that conservation on BLM-managed lands has been a possible but challenging concept over the past 15 years. For example, there is currently pressure to build a four-lane highway through the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, which is anathema to the purpose of the NCA. How BLM responds will show if it can meet the mission of the National Conservation Lands to conserve, protect and restore these important landscapes.”
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
“As this report points out, the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument still does not have a plan in place for grazing management and is relying on management plans from the early 1980s. Even though there were criticisms and concerns expressed during the scoping process, it is essential to finalize the grazing management plan based on National Conservation Lands policies and the current physical, climatic, social and resource conditions. If this is done, BLM can be on the right track to providing a model for conservation and grazing management agency-wide."
Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument
“The new maps, posters and branding of the National Conservation Lands and the manuals for managing them are all steps in the right direction.
“But the Breaks got an “F” in the area of protecting the Monument's wild character. We're concerned that BLM hasn't taken the first steps in inventorying the wild lands they have. They can't manage the Breaks to protect what they have if they don't know what's out there. And BLM is turning even well-intentioned people into scofflaws by not issuing a clear map of open roads in the Monument.
“We get that BLM is working under fairly extreme budget cuts and staff shortages. All we ask is that the agency prioritize protection, and work with partners who can help them protect the Monument -- our group of course, but also groups like the University of Montana's Wilderness Institute, which just worked with BLM to do the first-ever survey of the Monument's Wilderness Study Areas.”