Conservation of American Landscape Treasures Underfunded

WASHINGTON, DC, October 28, 2005 (ENS) - New oil and gas development in the West and increasing numbers of visitors are impacting the lands and waters of the 26 million acre National Landscape Conservation System, but inadequate funding and staffing of the Bureau of Land Management means the agency lacks the means to address these threats, new research reveals.

In a first assessment of the status of the National Landscape Conservation System (NLCS), released Tuesday, the Wilderness Society and World Resources Institute warn that nationally significant natural and cultural resources are being placed at risk through lack of funds to staff and manage these lands and waters.

“Conservation is supposed to be the priority for these places, but, despite the presence of many talented and committed managers, BLM simply is not getting the job done,” said The Wilderness Society’s Wendy VanAsselt, one of the authors of the report, "State of the National Landscape Conservation System: A First Assessment."

Escalante

Class trip to Escalante Canyon in Utah's Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Created by President Bill Clinton in 1996, this is the first national monument to be managed by the BLM. (Photo courtesy Layton High)
VanAsselt and fellow author Christian Layke of the World Resources Institute found an absence of public reporting on NLCS management, condition, successes and needs. There is no annual report for the NLCS with narrative and financial information; reports on individual units are also lacking.

The National Landscape Conservation System was established five years ago, under the leadership of Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, to conserve, protect, and restore the Bureau of Land Management’s most scenic and significant lands and waters.

The NLCS includes national monuments, national conservation areas, wilderness, wilderness study areas, historic trails, and wild and scenic rivers - all areas federally designated for protection.

“The National Landscape Conservation System was created to safeguard landscapes that are as spectacular in their own way as our national parks,” said Babbitt. “There is clear evidence, however, that we are at risk of moving backwards and failing to adequately protect these special American lands."

"The Department of the Interior and our leaders in Congress should take the recommendations of this report to heart and support the conservation mission of the NLCS before it is too late,” said Babbitt.

Rapidly growing numbers of visitors are increasing pressure on these lands and waters, the report finds. The number of visitors to the five BLM National Monuments in Arizona has doubled since 2000, for instance. Some of the fastest growing cities - Palm Springs, Tucson, Phoenix, and Las Vegas - border or surround NLCS lands.

Road networks that fragment wildlife habitat and bring motorized vehicles close to cultural resources, such as archeological sites that have not yet been studied, are another threat.

Using BLM data and information, the report grades the agency’s handling of the National Landscape Conservation System in seven categories, based on a review of 35 indicators ranging from natural resource monitoring to accountability.

The Conservation System scores no higher than a “C” in any category, although some individual places merited "A"s and "B"s for select issues of stewardship and management.

The authors say they met "committed and passionate" NLCS managers who are hampered by a lack of empowerment and inadequate or unstable budgets to carry out their broad responsibilities. Only one-third of the managers interviewed had the power to direct staff and consistently make decisions.

The researchers conclude that inadequate funding is a root problem. Although the NLCS represents about 10 percent of the 261 million acres managed by the BLM, including a large number of the BLM’s most visited lands and waters, it receives just 2.5 percent of the agency’s $1.8 billion budget, the report found.

As a result, there is a lack of field staff to address inappropriate off-road vehicle use, vandalism, and other problems. For the 15 places assessed, each ranger patrols an average of 200,000 acres.

VanAsselt said, “Almost every NLCS unit lacks adequate law enforcement staff, archaeological expertise, and scientists. The BLM also lacks the resources for comprehensive visitor management planning.”

monument

A centuries old dwelling in Colorado's Canyons of the Ancients National Monument (Photo courtesy BLM)
The assessment shows the need for better monitoring by the BLM of threatened species, water quality, and cultural sites on Conservation System lands. The agency has only comprehensively inventoried cultural and historic resources in an estimated six to seven percent of the total area encompassed by the national monuments and conservation areas, and monitoring programs are "equally deficient," the authors say.

In addition to better funding and staffing, the report recommends a better information base for conservation management, completion of overdue management plans and implementation strategies, and immediate closure of harmful roads.

Volunteers and academic partnerships could help to inventory, monitor, and protect resources, the report suggests.

The authors call for increased accountability, including the establishment of clear conservation goals specific to the National Landscape Conservation System, and a commitment from the agency to publicly track progress toward those goals.

“The good news is that it’s not too late for BLM, the administration, and Congress to safeguard these public treasures,” says The Wilderness Society president William Meadows. “But with new development in the West putting increased pressure on these lands and waters, the time to act is now.”

The National Landscape Conservation System includes: