Protecting the Best of the West: The Bureau of Land Management Must Start Taking Its Conservation Mandate Seriously

Article excerpt

Once considered the leftovers of Western settlement and land grabs, the 261 million acres of deserts, forests, river valleys, mountains, and canyons managed by the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) are now in hot demand. Pressure to open more of these lands for oil and gas drilling has never been greater. Traditional uses of BLM lands, including logging, livestock grazing, and mining, continue. At the same time, expanding cities and suburbs juxtapose populations beside BLM lands as never before, and new technologies such as all-terrain vehicles make once-remote BLM lands widely accessible. Increasingly, the distinctive Western landscapes of BLM lands are a magnet for all who prize outdoor recreation--from hikers to off-road vehicle enthusiasts, from birdwatchers to hunters.

Congress, as well as past presidents and ordinary citizens, have realized (almost belatedly) that BLM lands are rich in unique characteristics that merit conservation: wildlife, clean water, cultural and historic relics, open space, awesome scenic vistas, and soul-nourishing solitude. In recognition of the need to protect the BLM lands with the greatest richness of natural and historical resources, the Clinton administration in 2000 designated 26 million acres as the National Landscape Conservation System (NLCS) to help keep these stellar areas "healthy, wild, and open."

Now, conservationists of all stripes are watching the BLM closely. They ask: Can a federal agency historically attuned to maximizing resource development also address the challenge of conservation?

A recent assessment of the condition of the NLCS--and of the BLM's stewardship of those lands--offers a litmus test. The Wilderness Society and the World Resources Institute jointly conducted the assessment and issued results in October 2005. Our report, State of the NLCS: A First Assessment, finds that the NLCS's natural and cultural resources are at risk under the BLM's oversight.

Fortunately, the assessment also offers good news: It is not too late for the BLM, the administration, and Congress to safeguard the public treasures of the NLCS. In order to ensure that the BLM becomes a model for conservation and scientific learning in some of the nation's most special places, we recommend more funding and staffing, coupled with a commitment from leaders of the Department of the Interior, which oversees the BLM, to prioritize conservation on its premier Western lands. We also encourage a range of actions, including annual reporting and expanded volunteer programs, that would come at little cost to the agency or the federal budget.

From rags to riches

The federal government created the BLM in 1946 by combining the General Land Office and the Grazing Service. Today, the BLM manages more public land than the Park Service, Forest Service, or Fish and Wildlife Service. One-fifth of the land in states west of the Rocky Mountains falls under the BLM's purview.

For decades, BLM lands were perceived as "the lands no one wanted" or areas most useful for cheap grazing and mineral extraction. Indeed, the BLM was known in some quarters as the "Bureau of Livestock and Mining."

Yet, in fact, BLM lands are rich in a diversity of resources in addition to oil, gas, minerals, and rangeland.

Water. An estimated 65% of the West's wildlife depends for survival on riparian areas: lush areas adjacent to waterways. The BLM administers 144,000 miles of riparian-lined streams and 13 million acres of wetlands.

Cultural resources. The BLM manages the largest, most diverse, and most scientifically important body of cultural resources of any federal land agency. Extensive evidence of 13,000 years of human history on BLM lands ranges from prehistoric Native American archaeological sites to pioneer homesteads from the 19th and early 20th centuries. With just 6% of BLM lands surveyed for cultural resources, 263,000 cultural properties have been discovered; archaeologists estimate there are likely to be 4. …