By Emilene Ostlind/High Country News

The JW Marriott Resort and Spa in Las Vegas, Nev., may seem an inauspicious place to shape the future of conservation on public land. But in mid-November, some 320 sportsmen, ranchers, Native American and municipal leaders, wilderness advocates and others gathered in the hotel’s columned ballroom to recognize the 10th anniversary of the National Landscape Conservation System, a collection of outstanding U.S. Bureau of Land Management properties. And after a speech extolling the lands’ virtues, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar signed a secretarial order instructing the BLM to prioritize conservation, ecological connectivity and science in managing them.

The message to the BLM: Beef up your conservation efforts. Under the agency’s mandate to manage for “multiple use and sustained yield,” grazing, mining and drilling have historically trumped conservation, while lands with significant scenic, biological or cultural resources were usually relinquished to the National Park Service.

Then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt tried to change that in 2000 when he created the National Landscape Conservation System, now totaling 27 million acres of national monuments, wilderness study areas, wild and scenic rivers, and historic trails. It’s like a more rugged version of the national parks, complete with scenery, wildlife, and archaeological and cultural sites. But NLCS lands are typically more arid, at lower elevations and less developed, lacking visitor centers, interpretive signs and paved roads. They’re also less restricted: Dogs, mountain bikes, fishing and hunting are allowed. Babbitt hoped these areas would foster an agency-wide conservation ethic.

But the NLCS wasn’t even officially recognized by Congress until 2009. Although national conservation lands make up more than 10 percent of BLM holdings, only about 3 percent of the agency’s budget goes to them. Over the last 10 years, the BLM has tried to standardize the system’s management and raise its public profile. However, locals often protest designations that might limit use, say, if off-road vehicle access is restricted to protect natural or cultural resources.

Feeding such anxiety, an internal Interior Department investigation last year found that NLCS officials worked too closely with environmental groups, particularly the National Wildlife Federation. On the other hand, without an official mandate, NLCS managers have often given conservation low priority. A resource management plan issued this summer allows 121 new oil, natural gas and carbon dioxide drill sites in Colorado’s Canyon of the Ancients National Monument, 80 percent of which is leased for mineral development.

Salazar’s order outlines how the BLM can better “conserve, protect, and restore” national conservation lands, but some doubt that it will have much impact. Greg Mumm, director of the Blue-Ribbon Coalition, an ORV advocacy group, calls the order “red meat for the extreme environmental groups. I don’t see how it changes much on the ground.” And NLCS Director Carl Rountree admits that the part of the order that gives his office directorate status within the BLM is mostly “about perception” — a symbolic promotion that won’t affect how he does his job.

But many believe Salazar’s order is a milestone for the system’s evolution into a recognizable type of protected public land with real conservation and economic value. Patty Limerick, faculty director of the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado, says the order is “a very big deal,” because it gives BLM managers clear authority to prioritize conservation on designated lands. Brian O’Donnell, director of the Conservation Lands Foundation, agrees, calling it “pretty innovative.” For example, while federal lands are typically protected as islands — a national park here, a national forest there — the order directs the BLM to work with adjacent public and private landowners to enable wildlife to move between protected areas.

Whether Salazar’s decree will yield results on the ground remains to be seen. Kevin Mack, The Wilderness Society’s NLCS campaign director, says BLM Director Bob Abbey will have to clarify how the agency will implement it.

After the order’s signing, participants at the Las Vegas gathering brainstormed ways to integrate science into management and build community partnerships. And many escaped the gleaming hotel corridors to hike or bike at the nearby Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. One of almost 900 pieces of the NLCS, Red Rock hosts some of the best winter rock climbing on the continent. Among its cliffs and dirt trails, Salazar’s words resonated: “We know that healthy ecosystems and healthy economies are interrelated — and this is especially true for the West.”

This story originally appeared in the Dec. 20, 2010 issue of High Country News.

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