Andy Kerr

Conservationist, Writer, Analyst, Operative, Agitator, Strategist, Tactitian, Schmoozer, Raconteur

Why Special Designations are Necessary

Suggested Citation: Kerr, Andy. 2000. Oregon Desert Guide: 70 Hikes. Seattle: The Mountaineers Books. pp. 83-85.

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As conservationists developed the proposed Oregon Desert Conservation Act, they debated how much (if any) land and which lands to transfer from the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management to the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service.

Notwithstanding our hopes—and some evidence—for a new and better BLM, our experience shows that the agency is nowhere near as conservation minded as the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service. Most important, the underlying statutory basis for the national wildlife refuge system and the national park system is much stronger for conservation than that for BLM lands.

While BLM's "Areas of Critical Environmental Concern" (ACECs) offer some recognition of important areas, such administrative "protection" is inadequate. Some ACECs have livestock grazing and are not permanently protected from mining.

There is also an issue of which way a land management agency "leans." The National Park Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service generally lean toward conservation. Of course, like any bureaucracy, they are always subject to political pressure and sometimes exercise bad judgment. But they lean toward conservation. As an agency, the Bureau of Land Management leans instead either toward development and exploitation or toward maintaining the status quo, which often amounts to the same thing.

An increasing number of conservation and reform-minded BLM staff members are starting to have some effect on the "lean" of the agency. They are being allowed and encouraged by a relatively "green" Clinton administration, led by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. How permanent the change in BLM "lean" is will be made clear upon the election of the next antigreen administration.

Supporters of BLM argue that Congress should not take away the agency's "crown jewels," leaving it with the public land dregs and no incentive to manage its lands better.

The fact that it is land—and public land at that—should be incentive enough to practice good land management. If it is not, the problem is with the quality of the BLM and its underlying congressional direction, not its land. Public lands belong to the public. Any agency is just a steward.

Congress long ago established the national park system, the national wildlife refuge system, and the national forest system for the nation's crown jewels. It has yet to establish any system for the nonforested arid lands presently in the custodial care of BLM. (See "A New Mission and Name for the Bureau of Land Management" earlier.)

Are the national park, national forest, and national wildlife refuge systems complete? Is nothing else worthy of addition? The answer is no.

The answer is also that BLM does not seem ready—either by agency culture or by statutory direction and authority—to fully protect and restore public lands. And they will not be until Congress amends the statutes under which BLM must operate to be clearly proconservation and antiexploitation. (Clinton, Babbitt, or the BLM have yet to ask Congress to change the agency's mandate.)

Having said this, the question is legitimately asked, then why not a Steens National Park (and/or National Preserve, the only difference being that hunting is allowed in a preserve)? Surely the parklike quality of Steens qualifies for the national park system. Yes, without a doubt.

Most conservationists, however, are not proposing Steens Mountain and the Lower Owyhee country to be part of the national park system, but instead are proposing congressionally designated BLM-administered national conservation areas. This was done because:

1. It avoids unnecessary controversy with conservationists who also hunt. Even if you don't like hunting, please keep in mind that wildlife are infinitely more threatened by the loss of habitat.

2. It avoids the political difficulties of transferring certain lands from BLM to the National Park Service. Any agency fights for its land, but BLM would fight extra hard to keep Steens Mountain. Additionally, the Park Service presently does not have an aggressive acquisition attitude and wouldn't be any political help in the effort.

3. BLM, with the stronger statutory mandate and increased funding that national conservation area (NCA) status brings, can do an adequate job of conserving and restoring land, if NCAs have mandatory livestock grazing phase-out requirements and are overlain with wilderness and wild and scenic river designations. Nonetheless, citizens will have to occasionally sue the BLM to enforce and/or obey these federal protective laws. Such is the case now and not just for BLM.

The political debate should focus on livestock, not bureaucracy.

Conservationists are seeking national monument status for four areas of the Oregon Desert. They are also seeking two new national wildlife refuges and expansion of another. All of these areas would consist primarily of public lands presently under the jurisdiction of BLM (or the navy).

Such areas are worthy of inclusion in the national park system and the national wildlife refuge system. They contain uniquely important geological, paleontological, and ecological features that are best conserved and restored under National Park Service and Fish and Wildlife Service management.

Finally, park system units—but also wildlife refuges—are more attractive to the local tourism and recreation economy than are BLM national conservation areas. As the economy of the Oregon Desert continues to diversify away from livestock grazing, such designations can play an important role in this diversification.