In 2000, Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt created, by administrative order, the National Landscape Conservation System (NLCS), to “conserve, protect, and restore these nationally significant landscapes that have outstanding cultural, ecological, and scientific values for the benefit of current and future generations.” Babbitt’s administratively mandated NLCS consisted of federal public lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) that had already been congressionally designated for a higher level of conservation than run-of-the-mill BLM lands. This included wilderness areas, wild and scenic rivers, national conservation areas, wilderness study areas, national scenic trails, and national historic trails established by Congress, along with national monuments proclaimed by the president pursuant to congressional authority granted to the president under the National Monuments Act of 1906.
Babbitt, who oversaw the National Park Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service, which manage the National Park System and the National Wildlife Refuge System respectively (just as the secretary of agriculture oversees the Forest Service, which manages the National Forest System), felt that the Bureau of Land Management holdings, which were not part of any congressionally authorized federal land system, didn’t get enough respect. While Babbitt couldn’t simply rename and elevate the BLM into a full-fledged service, he could administratively increase the prominence of BLM lands previously protected by Congress.
NLCS Lands After Babbitt
The Clinton administration would soon be history, and most aficionados of BLM lands (including me) were betting that the nascent NLCS would be nipped in the bud by the incoming George W. Bush administration. Remarkably, the NLCS survived Babbitt’s successors Gale Norton and Dirk Kempthorne.
Congress Blesses the NLCS
In 2009, Congress codified the NLCS by an Act of Congress. Congress also specifically included in the system the Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Area, the Headwaters Forest Reserve, the Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area, and “any additional area designated by Congress for inclusion in the system.” Finally, Congress included in the system “public land within the California Desert Conservation Area administered by the Bureau of Land Management for conservation purposes.” Note that all these NLCS units had previously been established by Act of Congress (including presidentially proclaimed national monuments, which are established pursuant to the National Monuments Act of 1906, an Act of Congress).
The BLM generally calls lands in the NLCS national conservation lands. As of February 2017 (the end of the 114th Congress and the Obama administration), the NLCS contained
By BLM count, the NLCS has 876 units, totaling ~36 million acres (some units overlap) and 8,184 stream or trail miles.
Save for some lands in the CDCA, congressional NLCS status does not confer any level of conservation other than that previously provided by the underlying acts of Congress that established the special areas in the first place.
BLM Backsliding on California Desert Conservation
Congress established the CDCA with 25 million acres from Death Valley to Mexico in 1976. Of these acres, 10.8 million acres are administered by the BLM. Notwithstanding the name, all the BLM lands in the CDCA are not managed for conservation. BLM has prepared and amended resource management plans over the decades and allocated various lands to conservation. In 2009, in the NLCS statute, Congress provided that lands allocated for conservation in the CDCA comprehensive management plan were to be managed “in a manner that protects the values for which [CDCA lands administered for conservation purposes] were designated.”
Since the March 30, 2009 when President Obama signed the law congressionally establishing the NLCS, the BLM has been mandated to manage for conservation any BLM land allocated for conservation purposes in a BLM management plan. The BLM cannot undo the conservation status of these lands; only Congress can. Similarly, any lands the BLM allocates to conservation in the future automatically become part of the NLCS. It’s a one-way door. Once CDCA lands are administered for conservation, they must always be administered for conservation, unless Congress determines otherwise.
As of today, the BLM recognizes a total of 4.2 million acres as California Desert National Conservation Lands, 2.89 million acres of which were designated in a recent update to BLM’s comprehensive management plans. Disturbingly, when BLM updated its management plan to accommodate renewable energy development in 2016, the bureau undid some of the conservation lands afforded protection by the NLCS statute in 2009. This is a violation of law and needs to be brought to the attention of a U.S. District Court judge.
Rounding Out the National Landscape Conservation System
A major shortcoming is that the NLCS comprises only 10 percent of the BLM’s holdings and commands only 3 percent of the agency’s budget. The vast majority of BLM lands are just public lands and not part of a congressionally authorized conservation system. And save for the California Desert conservation lands, the NLCS is repetitively redundant (or at least redundantly repetitive) in terms of actual congressional conservation. Unless Congress protected it in the first place, an NLCS unit isn’t in the NLCS.
Congress could and should expand the NLCS in the following ways:
• designate millions of more acres of wilderness, both by elevating wilderness study areas already in the NLCS and by including additional qualifying roadless areas
• protect thousands of more miles of wild and scenic rivers
• protect thousands of more miles of historic or scenic trails
• establish additional national conservation areas and similar designations
• extend CDCA-like protection to older forest in western Oregon as Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley have previously proposed in legislation
• include the nearly 21 million acres that BLM has administratively established as areas of critical environmental concern (ACECs), research natural areas, outstanding natural areas, national natural landmarks, and similar designations
Including administrative conservation areas such as ACECs in the NLCS would prevent them from being weakened or eliminated by a future administration and could also permanently protect them from mining, all for the benefit of this and future generations.