Rethinking Conservation

The National Landscape Conservation System
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Vermillion Cliffs
Cobra Arch at Paria Canyon-Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness  (Allen Karsh)

The 26-million-acre National Landscape Conservation System (NLCS) is said to be the most innovative U.S. land-management program in the last 50 years, joining together the crown jewels of the Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) assets. Some of the places are trusty favorites, such as California's King Range National Conservation Area (the nation's first National Conservation Area), while others are less explored gems, such as Nevada's Sloan Canyon.

But to the uninitiated, the concept of landscape conservation begs a few questions, like how exactly do you conserve a landscape? And what's so innovative about the management system?

Seth Levy, who spends his days at the American Hiking Society raising awareness about the NLCS, drops some knowledge (ok, a lot of knowledge) about what he calls "the last great western landscapes."

AWAY.COM: The NLCS is a diverse program, incorporating National Scenic and Historic Trails, Wild and Scenic Rivers, Wilderness Areas, and National Conservation Areas just to name a few. What does it take for a place, river, or trail to become part of this system?
Seth Levy: The general vision is that these places will offer a wild, self-guided experience that will be much different from the experience you would have at more developed National Parks. This might mean that you will find very unobtrusive trail signs, or a fence around a sensitive cultural resource, but not a large parking lot full of concession stands. Conservation System lands also often offer great interpretations of western history.

In more technical terms, the BLM usually gets to manage newly designated areas such as Forest Reserves, Wilderness Study Areas, Outstanding Natural Areas, Cooperative Management and Protection areas, and some new National Recreation Areas, in addition to the areas you already mentioned. So, it's usually assumed that if a new National Conservation Area is designated on BLM lands, it will become part of the Conservation System. Here's an example: BLM owns some property near Lorton, VA. It happens to be on the recently designated Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail. Since BLM National Scenic Trails are usually part of the Conservation System, now there is a unit of the Conservation System very close to Washington, D.C.

The American Hiking Society is not alone in calling the NLCS "a revolution in managing public lands for conservation, recreation, science, and history." What is so revolutionary about it?
It's a worthy challenge to the BLM to live up to its mandate to manage lands for conservation, science, and recreation, in addition to extraction. Given that the BLM manages more land than all the other major federal land-management agencies combined, an opportunity to improve the management of, and recreational access to, 13 percent of America's surface area is truly nothing short of revolutionary. The NLCS is the largest new system of conserved lands in America. Not since the National Parks were designated in 1906 have we had the opportunity to make such a positive difference for the benefit of the next generation.

Also, the NLCS manages whole landscapes, not isolated "islands" of protected lands that are disconnected from the surrounding landscape. Bruce Babbitt, the former Secretary of Interior, realized that this sort of conservation is the wave of the future.

Tell me more about conserving a landscape.
A great example of this principle is Oregon's Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument. This is one of the most biologically diverse areas in the world, connecting many different eco-regions, serving as a crucial corridor for migration, and providing important habitats for different animals in each one of the surrounding eco-regions. If only the immediate area of the Cascade-Siskiyou were conserved while the surrounding areas were left completely unmanaged, the essential nature of the place would be lost. The concept applies to trails too, like the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail. Who would want to hike on a trail that wound 2,000 miles through strip malls? It's important to manage the whole corridor of the trail so that future generations can enjoy it; without the surrounding landscape, the trail itself has little meaning.

Published: 8 Mar 2007 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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