The National Landscape Conservation System

By Bruce Babbitt

I began thinking seriously about the conservation future of the Bureau of Land Management in 1993.  Congress was debating the California Desert Protection Act, a major land protection bill that would transfer 1 million acres from the BLM to the National Park Service.

Phot of Bruce Babbit
Bruce Babbitt at the Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Area in Oregon. (BLM)
Preparing to testify in favor of the legislation, I decided to visit the area’s desert valleys, sand dunes, lava flows, extinct volcanoes, and imposing mountains, camping under starlit skies and awakening to landscapes coming alive with spring flowers.  Our guide, Ed Hastey, who was then BLM’s California state director, was not at all reticent about voicing his opinions.  “The Mojave Desert is BLM country, and it ought to stay that way.  We know the land,” he said.  “With a clear conservation mandate, BLM can manage this desert as well or better than anyone else.”

Initially, it didn’t matter to me—and visitors would hardly care—which agency was in charge, but Hastey persisted on a larger issue:  How can you expect the BLM, with the largest land base of all, to get serious about conservation if you continually transfer its “crown jewels” to other agencies?  He had a point. 

Returning to Washington, I asked the legislative sponsors to consider designating the Mojave Desert as a national monument administered by the BLM, but there was no time to change direction.  The California Desert Protection Act barely became law, edging through the Senate without a single vote to spare.

Three years later, we began work on a Presidential proclamation to establish the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah under BLM jurisdiction.  President Clinton accepted my recommendation, and the first BLM monument—nearly 2 million acres of spectacular landscapes—came into existence.

The proclamation was, to put it mildly, not well received in southern Utah.  During the ensuing controversy and congressional hearings, we heard all the familiar arguments against land protection.  One complaint resonated with me—the monument process had indeed been closely held, without sufficient disclosure and consultation with members of Congress, the Governor, or the public.  While many of our predecessors had created monuments in much the same manner, it seemed that the time had come to change that practice.  As legislators called for the repeal of the Antiquities Act, our administration dropped further consideration of monuments.

Then, in January 1999, I was working on access issues with the Border Patrol on rugged Otay Mountain, home to rare cypress groves and other endemic species.  While meeting with the press about the Border Patrol work, I floated a proposal—that I was considering recommending Otay Mountain to the President for designation as a national monument.

The San Diego press picked up and promptly endorsed the idea.  Sensing a gathering tide of public support, the local Republican Congressman rushed forward with his own proposal to designate Otay Mountain as a wilderness area.  With Republican support, the Otay Mountain Wilderness Area was signed into law in December 1999.  This taught us something new—that by inviting public discussion on our proposals, we might draw Congress into action, providing new opportunities for conservation legislation.

Encouraged by Otay Mountain, I focused my attention on a proposal in Arizona, my home state, for more than 1 million acres adjoining Grand Canyon National Park.  The Arizona congressional delegation was not interested, but a public poll showed that 76 percent of Arizonans favored a monument.  President Clinton listened and created the Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument, nearly doubling the protected area of the Grand Canyon.

Thereafter, we publicly announced new proposals, following up with field trips and public hearings.  On many occasions, Congress then stepped forward to propose legislation, which resulted in the creation of the Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Area (OR), San Jacinto National Monument (CA), Las Cienegas National Conservation Area (AZ), and McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area (CO).

Each proposal for a conservation designation was based on unique, site-specific qualities, including cultural history, protection of biodiversity and endemic species, wildlife management, scenic values, open space, and the values and needs of nearby communities.  But they all shared an overarching commitment to conservation and resource protection as the dominant use, transcending and shaping all other aspects of management.

During the final year of our administration, we paused to assess the results.  We had created 14 BLM monuments through Presidential proclamations.  Congress had continued to add wilderness, wild and scenic rivers, conservation areas, and national trails to BLM lands.  The next logical step was to draw all these conservation lands together in an administrative structure, which we named the National Landscape Conservation System.

Almost a decade later, the future of the system was secured when President Obama authorized the National Landscape Conservation System as part of the Omnibus Public Land Management Act in March 2009.  The legislation also added more than 1 million acres to the system.

These conservation lands will remain as undeveloped open spaces, a place for unbounded recreation and individual adventure.  They will be conserved and used within a continuum of regional history and tradition.  There is immense popular support for this vision.  Ed Hastey first convinced me of that on a spring day in the Mojave Desert, and I believe that the NLCS will fulfill our expectations.

Bruce Babbitt was the Secretary of the Interior during the Clinton administration and was the Governor of Arizona.  He continues to write and speak out about conservation issues.