Wildlands and a Secretarial Order: Found in Las Vegas

Monday, November 22, 2010

As someone who grew up on the East Coast, words that characterize the West sound like poetry to me. Creosote. Gypsum. The Loggerhead Shrike. Bajada. The Virgin River. Even the word “arid,” which very generally describes the climate of Southern Nevada, had not been tossed around much where I grew up. These words are far more than poetic though, they represent a vast landscape that is part of ongoing discussions about the future management of the public lands in the west.

Recently a pair of events focused on the future of the National Landscape Conservation System (National Conservation Lands) brought together people from all over the country who devote their time and energy to our Conservation Lands in one form or another. Las Vegas was the site of two different gatherings, bringing diverse groups and policy makers together to talk about the National Conservation Lands and its management by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

The first was a meeting of the numerous “friends groups,” comprised of citizens from communities all over the west who are committed to the health of America’s western heritage. Friends groups are dedicated to protecting specific components of the Conservation Lands, such as Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Learning from our partners who work day in and day out on the National Conservation Lands, and who have these spectacular landscapes in their backyards, is critical to those of us who work in Washington D.C. to advocate for sound management policies. As I heard the poetic words that describe these places, I realized that the more time we spend on our public lands the better we are at communicating about the splendor and the needs in the region.

The second event that brought The Wilderness Society to Las Vegas was hosted directly by the BLM. This summit was focused on the National Landscape Conservation System. The discussions between the agency and groups invested in the Conservation Lands’ past, present, and future included a visit from the Secretary of Interior, Ken Salazar.

Early during the summit, Secretary Salazar signed a Secretarial Order, calling for the BLM to manage the National Conservation Lands "to protect the values for which they were designated." For example, components of the Conservation Lands can be designated to protect wilderness and wildlife values, cultural and historic resources, and scientific research opportunities, among other values. The Secretary’s order set conservation as the top priority for the 27 million acres of land and water that currently make up the Conservation Lands.

Secretary Salazar’s visit and the Secretarial Order instructs a commitment to protection of the National Conservation Lands from the highest administration level, reinforcing that the BLM must have conservation at the core of every decision it makes in regards to the management of these spectacular, unique lands. With this confirmation from DOI, those of us who work to ensure adequate management and protection of these lands have very firm grounding to stand on.

My time out west was more than about policy. I spent time on the public lands we work so hard to protect. Within hours of arriving at the Las Vegas Airport, I stood at 6323’ on Turtlehead Peak in Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area in Utah, part of the National Conservation Lands. The desert canyon and huge limestone and sandstone cliffs around me were glorious. Part of the glory was also in knowing I had just raced up a mountain that would be #7 on the list of highest peaks east of the Mississippi in order to beat sunset when the temperature plummets 25 degrees in a matter of hours!

Gold Butte, Nevada. Photo by Ben Friedman.I also explored the citrus-colored washes of Gold Butte’s wilderness. I viewed ancient petroglyphs carved into volcanic rock at Sloan Canyon National Conservation Area. I tracked big cats and wandered the Joshua tree forest of the Wee Thump Wilderness.

It is sometimes difficult to stay connected to the western wilderness so many of us work to protect while living in Washington, D.C. I believe that a personal connection to the lands is crucial to being a strong advocate for them. We can be nourished with a feeling of stewardship that comes only with breathing and walking and learning in the wildlands. The Interior Secretary’s Order has significant meaning when you actually visit these places and see the threats with your own eyes and recognize that there are people working on solutions. Only the future will tell how the Order will impact the management of the National Landscape Conservation System. In the meantime we’ll keep spending time on the ground, meeting with our partners and the locals who value these places. We’ll keep pushing for strengthening the management of these lands. And I’ll keep playing those poetic words in my head as I work to ensure our public lands get the funding and respect they deserve.