Over the course of more than a century, Congress—or the executive branch using expressed authorities granted by Congress—has established various systems for the conservation, management, and enjoyment of federal and other lands and waters. On the whole, these systems are bold, visionary, and remarkable. Those who championed the legislation that led to these federal conservation systems deserve to be remembered favorably by history. Those United States senators and members of Congress who voted for these systems and vote to expand them deserve our gratitude.
On the whole, such systems are good for nature and society, but all could be improved. In the coming months—if not years (it all depends on what else I choose to write about)—I will be blogging in detail on each and every one of these existing federal conservation systems, and some prospective ones as well. I will examine the good (done for the lasting benefit of this and future generations), the bad (sins of omission: failure to expressly conserve), and the ugly (sins of commission: express loopholes large enough to drive log trucks, bulldozers, or coal trains through) of these federal conservation systems.
One can group these federal conservation systems into five general categories.
Category 1: The Majority of Federal Public Lands
There are four major land management agencies that administer federal public lands, and most, but not all, of these lands are in one of four conservation systems.
The National Landscape Conservation System (totaling ~35 million acres) is administered by the USDI Bureau of Land Management but includes only ~14 percent of the ~258 million acres of lands administered by that agency.
Category 2: Federally Protected Areas of High National Significance
Three federal conservation systems recognize important areas with resources of high national significance. Two of these systems were established by Congress, and the third is administrative and needs to be codified by Congress to prevent a later administration from undoing it.
The National Estuarine Research Reserve System (totaling ~1.3 million acres) is also administered by NOAA.
The National System of Marine Protected Areas (totaling ~162 million acres), also administered by NOAA, includes only a very small fraction of the marine seascape.
Category 3: Portions of Federal Conservation Systems with Elevated Protections
Three congressional conservation systems often overlap with Category 1 systems.
The National Wilderness Preservation System (totaling ~109 million acres) has units administered by either the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Fish and Wildlife Service, or the National Park Service.
The National Wild and Scenic Rivers System (totaling ~12,734 miles) has units that are administered by either the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Fish and Wildlife Service, or the National Park Service.
The National Trails System (totaling ~50,000 miles) is administered overall by the National Park Service.
Category 4: Pending Federal Conservation Systems
Legislation is pending in Congress to establish two new conservation systems: a National Recreation Areas System and a National Heritage Areas System. National recreation areas are mostly federal public lands, while national heritage areas are mostly not.
While there are forty congressionally established national recreation areas (NRAs), administered by the Forest Service or the National Park Service, there is as yet no system of NRAs. Legislation was introduced in the 114th Congress (House and Senate) to do so and is expected to again be introduced in the current 115th Congress.
While there are forty-nine congressionally established national heritage areas (NHAs), they are not administered by any federal land management agency. While not part of the National Park System, NHAs are congressionally blessed and partially funded by the National Park Service. Legislation is pending in Congress to establish an NHA System.
There is also an effort in Congress to establish a National Wildlife Corridor System that would facilitate vital wildlife migration on federal and other lands.
Category 5: Needed Federal Conservation Systems
There should be legislation in Congress to establish a National Desert and Grassland System for generally tree-free federal public lands administered by the BLM. Units of the National Desert and Grassland System would be analogous to units of the National Forest System, and a USDI National Desert and Grassland Service would be modeled along the lines of the USDA Forest Service.
Federal conservation systems are an unqualified social good and generally provide elevated protection and better management to important federal public lands and to resources and areas of high national significance. All existing federal conservation systems could be improved, and none should be weakened or discarded. Those that haven’t yet been codified by Congress need to be.