Background and History
Photo: A page from The Wilderness Act of 1964

The Bureau of Land Management's National Landscape Conservation System (National Conservation Lands) includes more than 26 million acres of public lands. These natural landscapes are managed to ensure their conservation, protection, and, if needed, restoration for the long-term benefit of surrounding communities. Created in 2000, the Conservation System within California includes 174 units and almost 5 million acres of federally designated lands including:

National Monuments
National Conservation Areas
Forest Reserve
Outstanding Natural Area
Wild and Scenic Rivers
National Scenic and Historic Trails

Wilderness Study Areas

In 2011 the Bureau of Land Management released a 15-Year Strategy to guide management efforts within National Conservation Lands.

National Monuments

National Monuments are special public lands designated by Presidential or Congressional proclamation to protect landscapes, historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, or other objects of historic or scientific interest. While only Congress can designate a National Park or wilderness area, Congress gave the President authority (through the Antiquities Act of 1906) to designate National Monuments. The law’s purpose is to protect “objects of historic or scientific interest.” President Theodore Roosevelt used this authority to protect the Grand Canyon. Nearly every President since then has created National Monuments.

The Bureau of Land Management administers fifteen national monuments in eight western states. California BLM manages five national monuments:

Berryessa Snow Mountain
California Coastal National Monument
Carrizo Plain National Monument
Fort Ord National Monument
Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument

National Conservation Areas

Congress designates National Conservation Areas (NCAs) to conserve, protect, enhance, and manage public land areas for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations. NCAs feature exceptional natural, recreational, cultural, wildlife, aquatic, archaeological, paleontological, historical, educational, and/or scientific resources. Each NCA is managed differently depending on its specific enabling legislation.

The Bureau of Land Management administers sixteen national conservation areas. In California, BLM manages one of these areas:

The King Range National Conservation Area encompasses 68,000 acres along 35 miles of California’s dramatic north coast.

Forest Reserve

Headwaters Forest Reserve is a one-of-a-kind designation by Congress to protect the old-growth redwoods of central Humboldt County.

Totaling 7,400 acres, the Headwaters Forest Reserve was acquired in 1999 from a private timber company to protect and preserve important ecological and wildlife values. Stands of old-growth redwoods provide habitat for the threatened marbled murrelet, and stream systems provide critical habitat for the threatened coho salmon. The Headwaters Forest Reserve is co-managed with the state of California. 

Outstanding Natural Area

The Outstanding Natural Area (ONA) designation was established by Congress primarily to protect unique scenic, scientific, educational, and recreational values. Recreation activities focus on education and interpretation of the ONA's unique resources.

The Bureau of Land Management administers three Outstanding Natural Areas including California's Piedras Blancas Light Station Outstanding Natural Area located off the central coast, just north of San Simeon.

On May 8, 2008, President Bush signed into law the Consolidated Natural Resources Act of 2008 (S. 2739). This Act of Congress designated Piedras Blancas Historic Light Station as an Outstanding Natural Area and added this area to the National Landscape Conservation System.

Wild & Scenic Rivers

The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, championed by Senator Frank Church, and signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on October 2, 1968, protects the free-flowing waters of many of our nation's most spectacular rivers. The Act is notable for safeguarding the special character of these rivers, while also recognizing the potential for appropriate use and development. The managing agencies also accommodate and reflect interests of local communities and adjacent land owners. Every designation preserves a slice of the traditional American experience - such as fishing, boating, swimming, or wading in waters our nation's forefathers would have recognized and enjoyed.

The Act provides three levels of protection: wild, scenic, and recreational. “Wild” rivers are free of dams, generally inaccessible except by trail, and represent vestiges of primitive America. “Scenic” rivers are free of dams, with shorelines or watersheds still largely primitive and shorelines largely undeveloped, but accessible in places by roads. “Recreational” rivers are readily accessible by road or railroad, may have some development along their shorelines, and may have been dammed in the past. 

The Bureau of Land Management manages 38 wild and scenic rivers including more than 2,050 river miles. California BLM manages eight "recreational" wild and scenic rivers:

Amargosa River
North Fork American River
Cottonwood Creek
Eel River
Klamath River
Merced River
Trinity River
Tuolumne River
National Scenic & Historic Trails

The Bureau of Land Management is one of several agencies responsible for management of national historic or scenic trails. In 1968, Congress established the National Trails System and designated the first national trails. 

National historic trails are extended trails that closely follow a historic trail or route of travel of national significance. Route segments may be followed, in many cases, by motorized vehicle, on horseback, or on foot and are generally linked by auto tour routes. Designation identifies and protects historic routes, historic remnants, and artifacts for public use and enjoyment. The Bureau of Land Management is responsible for over 4,500 miles of 10 national historic trails. In California, BLM co-manages three national historic trails:

California National Historic Trail
Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail
Old Spanish National Historic Trail

National scenic trails are extended trails that provide maximum outdoor recreation potential for the enjoyment and conservation of the various landscape qualities – scenic, historical, natural, and cultural – of the areas they pass through. The Bureau of Land Management is responsible for over 600 miles along three National Scenic Trails.

BLM California manages portions of the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail (PCT).


Many people use "wilderness" to describe any remote, rugged and undeveloped land. Since passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act, the word has a very specific meaning. Only federal land designated by Congress as wilderness, becomes part of the National Wilderness Preservation System. The purpose of wilderness is "to secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness .... devoted to the public purposes of recreation, scenic, scientific, educational, conservation, and historical use" (from the Wilderness Act). Wilderness designation is considered the "gold standard" of protection for the natural, undeveloped, and untrammeled character of these places.

Wilderness lands offer outstanding opportunities for achieving solitude or pursuing primitive recreation activities such as hiking, hunting, wildlife viewing, and horseback riding. They provide a "living laboratory" for scientific research as well as a wild place for diverse plant and animal life. 

Wilderness areas are places of solitude where people can experience freedom from our fast-paced industrialized society. They are places where people can renew the human spirit through association with the natural world. Wilderness areas are also remote places where visitors must be prepared with the proper skills and equipment to experience nature on its own terms.

Large areas areas of California are still primitive, natural, and roadless. Of the 222 wilderness areas admininstered by the Bureau of Land Management, California BLM manages 87 of these areas, or 3.8 million acres, as part of the National Wilderness Preservation System. These represent some of the National Landscape Conservation System's most spectacular landscapes, ranging from desert sand dunes to the Pacific coastline, and from river canyons to mountain peaks.

Wilderness Study Areas

Wilderness Study Areas are managed much like wilderness and are open to a variety of backcountry recreation opportunities including hiking, horseback riding, hunting, and backpacking to name a few.

In 1976, Congress directed the Bureau of Land Management through the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) to inventory areas with wilderness character and respond to Congress within 15 years.

California BLM began the inventory in 1978 and made its suitability recommendations to Congress in 1991. Congress has designated wilderness for some WSAs, has designated new WSAs, and has released others from further WSA management restrictions. As a result, California BLM now manages 68 WSAs totaling over 1 million acres.

Conservation System Units

National Monuments  

National Conservation Area

Forest Reserve

Outstanding Natural Area

Wild and Scenic Rivers

National Historic and Scenic Trails

Wilderness and Wilderness Study Areas 


National Conservation Lands