In June 2000, the National Landscape Conservation System - the most innovative American land system created in the last 50 years - was established to encompass the crown jewels of the public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). This new conservation system consists of more than 26 million acres: National Monuments, National Conservation Areas, Wilderness, Wilderness Study Areas, Wild and Scenic Rivers, and National and Scenic Trails. View a map of the system."I immediately saw that a lot of National Park Service units had been drawn without a knowledge of conservation biology. Nowadays, biologists tell us that you can't respect the integrity of creation by preserving small, 40-acre tracts surrounded by development. If you want to really protect it, you must look at the entire system."
- Bruce Babbitt, US Secretary of the Interior
Leslie Allen, Wildlands of the West (National Geographic, 2002)
As a system of spectacular units, the National Landscape Conservation System (NLCS) parallels the U.S. system of National Parks and National Wildlife Refuges. But the NLCS is also a major departure from conventional land conservation. The NLCS protected areas reflect a more recent understanding that truly conserving natural and cultural values means protecting large landscapes-entire ecosystems and archaeological communities-not merely small, isolated tracts surrounded by development. For example, Arizona's Agua Fria National Monument contains hundreds of archaeological structures and sites; to understand the story these archaeological sites tell, it is essential to look at them as a system, as well as the surrounding lands where their inhabitants traded, hunted, and farmed. Another example of "landscape scale conservation" is the Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument. Created in 2000, this unit encompasses 800,000 acres, including large parts of the watershed of the Grand Canyon adjacent to the park.
Another crucial part of the vision for the National Landscape Conservation System is to protect the remote and wild character of these places, and to leave them undeveloped. Remoteness is what has protected the natural and cultural values for so many years. And, this remoteness offers all Americans the last chance to preserve and understand the West as it was in the 1800s when rugged Americans rolled West toward California.
Despite its ambitious mission, the National Landscape Conservation System at this point is simply a nascent collection of extraordinary places, plagued by small staff, inadequate funds, and a managing agency that has traditionally focused on commodity production rather than conservation. Over the next few years, the BLM and the American people face a decision that will dramatically affect the future of these special places. Will we allow our National Monuments and other priceless public lands in the NLCS to be neglected and undermined, or will we make the necessary commitments to ensure that the NLCS becomes the strong, conservation-oriented system that it needs to be? The choice is ours.
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