Public lands users have an opportunity over the next two months to offer feedback to the Bureau of Land Management about new rules that would elevate conservation to equal status with the agency’s traditional resource extraction agenda. The BLM is an agency of the U.S. Department of Interior and manages 8 million acres in Colorado, millions more across the West.
The lands overseen by the BLM have been called the “lands no one wanted.” Along with familiar desert canyons and mesas of the Colorado Plateau, they include vast areas of the Sonoran Desert, and the Basin and Range regions of the West, among others.
After the frenzied settlement and colonization in the 1800s when prime lands with abundant timber, water and rangeland were occupied, much of the arid and less hospitable regions was left unclaimed. Eventually, the United States decided to retain these lands in public ownership, and they fell under the administration of the BLM.
While canyons and mesas might have offered little appeal to settlers, their scenic, environmental and biological values became apparent over time. Today, throngs of people overwhelm BLM landscapes surrounding places like Moab as the conservation value of our canyon lands has gained appreciation.
At the beginning of April, the BLM unveiled a proposal to elevate conservation to a status on par with energy development and other extractive uses across the millions of acres under its jurisdiction. BLM is exploring several tools to protect undeveloped and intact landscapes, restore degraded habitat, and base management decisions on the best available science and data.
One such tool for which BLM is soliciting comment is the identification of Areas of Critical Environmental Concern. Back in 1976, Congress created the fundamental framework for the BLM in the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, and included in that was the direction to establish Areas of Critical Environmental Concern where significant ecological and cultural resources were present. But alas, the BLM never adopted any rules that guide the designation of these areas, or their subsequent management.
As an example of the kind of places that might deserve such designation, the area now comprising Canyons of the Ancients National Monument west of Cortez was first flagged as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern in the 1980s. The region’s extraordinary cultural resource values led to its later establishment as a National Monument in 2000.
Today, other Areas of Critical Environmental Concern include places like the escarpment at the foot of the Mesa Verde cliffs, encompassing abundant pre-Puebloan sites as well as uncommon plant communities. Another Area of Critical Environmental Concern many might find familiar is American Basin, the spectacular alpine flower-filled based basin below Handies Peak, and one of the most scenic and photographed locations in Colorado.
What’s currently lacking is any consistent set of rules that ensure similar consideration of other places like the Mesa Verde escarpment and American Basin, and direction to avoid impacts from activities like new roads, mineral leasing or mining that could degrade the areas’ values.
Conservation leasing is another idea under consideration. Today, one can lease BLM lands for oil and gas extraction or other resource utilization activities such as livestock grazing. Conservation leasing could provide the opportunity for individuals, companies or organizations to lease BLM lands for conservation purposes, including ecological restoration or as mitigation for development elsewhere.
The proposed rules offer to advance BLM into the 21st century, and recognize that lands can be valued for purposes other than extraction. It would help take BLM full circle from its original status as the lands no one wanted.
Mark Pearson is Executive Director of San Juan Citizens Alliance. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.