Milestones in conservation of our public lands celebrated in annual Comparative Analysis for Performance Excellence (CAPE) awards

Protecting the wildest places while also advancing recreation opportunities and energy projects is no small task for those who manage America’s shared western lands.

Over the past year the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has come a long way in modernizing the way public lands are managed.  The Wilderness Society’s annual Comparative Analysis for Performance Excellence (CAPE) awards acknowledge the work the agency has done from protecting places where wildlife thrive, including the lands sage grouse call home, to important milestones like the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP), which will impact nearly 10 million acres of public land in southern California.

In 2015 the BLM moved to finalize some important plans that signify a solid new approach to public lands management.  As the year draws to a close we’re thrilled to celebrate the success of several planning efforts and the encouraging progress on many others with our annual CAPE awards.  

The CAPE rating system, ranges from one CAPE on the low end (worth a pat on the back) to five CAPEs on the high end (huge progress- way to go!) These are some of the highlights of this year’s awards:

Photo by Bob Wick, BLM.

Greater Sage-Grouse conservation plans cross the finish line (4 CAPEs)

Staving off a listing under the Endangered Species Act, The BLM and US Forest Service issued conservation plans for the greater sage-grouse that should help recover the imperiled bird. These plans have the potential to protect the greater sage-grouse because they merge the best available science with the wisdom of local and state agencies, biologists, conservationists, ranchers, hunters and other interest groups. In fact, these plans broke new ground in large-scale conservation.

The strongest protections occur in 35 million acres of priority habitat in many western states. Of this priority habitat, about 12 million acres are subject to even stricter protections. The plans also incorporate protections in 32 million acres of “general habitat.” In these lands, damaging activities are to be kept away from habitat hotspots, like grouse mating areas.

There is still a lot of work ahead to implement and strengthen these plans, but they provide a roadmap to success if followed and improved along the way.

Dinosaur Trail Master Leasing Plan sets a new standard (4 CAPEs)

Master Leasing Plans were one of the more revolutionary concepts proposed in the BLM’s 2010 oil and gas leasing reforms. MLPs are intended to reduce conflict between drilling and other values of our public lands, including recreation and wildlife habitat. This year, northwest Colorado’s White River Field Office provided a national model with finalization of the Dinosaur Trail MLP.

The area at stake is the heart of the Piceance Basin, one of the most heavily-developed areas in Colorado and the West. Yet this incredibly special place is also home to some of Colorado’s most important wildlife habitat and hunting units, remote wildlands, greater sage-grouse habitat, and one of the West’s crown jewels – Dinosaur National Monument.

The BLM identified more than 300,000 acres of land with wilderness characteristics and nearly half of those lands are now being protected from oil and gas development, and limits have been placed on the rest to protect against any unnecessary degradation. The MLP also adopts practices to allow for smart and strategic oil and gas development, such as phased leasing, stipulations to protect Dinosaur National Monument and requiring master development plans for all development.

The Dinosaur Trail Master Leasing Plan is a new model for planning for oil and gas development on our public lands. The MLP will allow for oil and gas drilling to continue, but not at the expense of wildlands, wildlife, recreation and other important resources.

Photo by Bob Wick, BLM.

BLM proposes over 5.3 million acres for conservation in the California desert (3 CAPEs)

Nearly 10 million acres of public land in southern California are part of a BLM planning effort that ensures opportunities for smart renewable energy development without compromising the inherent value of the region’s rugged landscapes, rich ecosystems and plentiful recreation areas.

This past year the BLM released their final Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) for a diverse network of millions of acres of land across the California desert. It strengthens management terms and increases impact mitigation requirements for Areas of Critical Environmental Concern, which can reduce long-term impacts and steer development toward more appropriate areas.  The BLM’s plan will also add over 3.8 million acres of new National Conservation Lands, including several key desert areas – like the Silurian and Cadiz Valleys – that were excluded in their previous draft plan. Most importantly, BLM confirms that all designated National Conservation Lands under the plan will become permanent, undevelopable installations whose status cannot be changed through a future land use plan amendment.

The BLM’s progress not only confirms the agency’s commitment to finalizing the DRECP as a whole, but also highlights its effort to use landscape level planning strategies to help prioritize conservation land designations and identify the best areas for smarter, lower impact renewable energy development.

To ensure the BLM Land Use Plan Amendments are consistent with the objectives of the DRECP, the agency will need to continue improving the plan and make some additional changes before publishing its Record of Decision in 2016.

On Wilderness, Rio Grande del Norte National Monument Stands Out from the Crowd (3 CAPEs)

Photo by Soren Jespersen.

One of New Mexico’s newest monuments, the Rio Grande del Norte, is giving wilderness resources the attention they deserve in the crafting of its management plan. Situated on the Taos Plateau, the monument is well-known for a wealth of cultural and wildlife resources, and the spectacular Rio Grande Gorge. 

As part of the management plan, BLM completed field inventory of lands with wilderness characteristics in compliance with agency policy and found 160,265 acres of LWC in the 242,500-acre monument. Kudos to the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument planning staff for embracing the agency’s lands with wilderness characteristics policy and recognizing the importance of wilderness resources on our public lands. Lands with wilderness characteristics provide sought-after places for backcountry recreation, important wildlife habitat, clean air and water, and harbor for cultural and paleontological resources. It’s past time the agency step up to the plate to protect these multiple values, adhere to its own policies and work with the public in managing the public lands.

Unfortunately, the LWC inventory efforts in the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument are the exception rather than the norm. Despite having current guidance for inventorying and considering managing lands with wilderness characteristics since 2011, BLM is still not adequately implementing its own policies or taking this resource seriously in planning and project-level activities across the West. It’s time for BLM to stop making excuses and give wilderness quality lands the attention they deserve.

View our complete list of CAPE awards and honorable mentions  or Nada Culver's press statement on the 2015 awards.