“This is one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Neil Armstrong, 1969
The American experience is rich with stories of frontier exploration. From the extraordinary journey of Lewis and Clark in search of the Northwest Passage to the legendary adventures of John Wesley Powell in his quest to conquer the mysteries of the Colorado River – the country and especially the West have been defined by frontier adventures.
July, 2009 marked the 40th anniversary of another major milestone in America’s quest to push boundaries and explore new frontiers -- the Apollo moon landing. The television images of Neil Armstrong descending the ladder onto the moon’s surface captivated the attention of the world, rekindling the exploration spirit that lies within us.
The Apollo landing and the Corps of Discovery journey, events separated by nearly 165 years, have achieved almost mythical status in American folklore. Both were defining moments of bravery and exploration underscoring the need for humans to set out into the wild unknown. Wallace Stegner captures the essence of this idea perfectly:
“We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.”
Where is that “wild country” today? Where will our children go to nurture their souls in the future? I have traveled the West extensively and there are still places to wander alone in the canyons, deserts, or mountains — but they are fast disappearing, and many are threatened. In fact, a new Sonoran Institute report explores this very issue.
Landscapes that Define America are Threatened
The report, Western Landscapes in the Crossfire: Urban Growth and the National Landscape Conservation System, concludes that many of the West’s most wild and scenic public lands are being rapidly degraded by a combination of growth and development, vandalism, illegal and unmanaged off-road vehicle use, inadequate staffing, and lack of funds to provide management.
The report focuses on specific lands within the National Landscape Conservation System, which encompasses about 27 million acres in 11 western states with more than 800 protected areas designated as national monuments, national conservation areas, wild and scenic rivers, wilderness areas, and national trails. Managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management ( BLM ), the Conservation System achieved new stature this year with formal protections provided by the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009. President Barack Obama signed this landmark legislation into law on March 30.
Despite the protections offered by the new law, substantial challenges remain. “The Conservation System took a major step forward this year when Congress and the President recognized its importance as the first major new land conservation system in nearly 50 years,” says the Sonoran Institute’s John Shepard. “The great promise of the Conservation System, however, remains unfulfilled. Despite public enthusiasm for visiting and protecting these ‘crown jewel’ lands, most are underfunded and understaffed, making them highly vulnerable to vandalism, illegal off-highway driving, and resource destruction.”
Agua Fria National Monument, a cultural and historical gem with more than 450 identified historic sites situated just 40 miles north of Phoenix is struggling to manage a big increase in illegal off-highway vehicle (OHV) activity which threatens its unique grasslands and rich wildlife habitat. “OHV use is fine as long as they stick to the roads, but the trailblazing is placing the many sensitive areas of the monument at risk,” says Peggy Biegler, outreach coordinator for Friends of Agua Fria. “BLM is a great partner for our friends group, but is stretched thin in being able to effectively manage the reckless OHV activity.”
Resources—Stretched Thin and Leveraged by Volunteers
The report indicates that—on average—there is only one BLM ranger assigned for every 200,000 acres of land, and that total funding in 2007 for all Conservation System units amounted to only $2 per acre.
The situation at Ironwood Forest National Monument in Arizona underscores this point. “Being so close to the Mexico border, we have been struggling with basic safety concerns for our visitors and volunteers,” says Christina McVie, board member for the Friends of Ironwood Forest. “In fact, there is only one BLM law enforcement agent who has the almost impossible job of ensuring security at Ironwood Forest and at Las Cienegas NCA – which is almost 50 miles away! Until we get more funding for safety and law enforcement, it will be hard not only to appreciate the vast beauty of the monument area, but also to attract volunteers to do the work that is needed to protect its many distinctive and diverse resources.”
The report focuses on eight iconic Conservation System units in Arizona and Nevada, including Arizona’s Agua Fria, Sonoran Desert, Ironwood Forest and Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monuments (NM), and the Las Cienegas, San Pedro Riparian, Red Rock Canyon and Sloan Canyon National Conservation Areas (NCAs).
Profiles of these areas illustrate the diversity of landscapes and resources protected by the Conservation System, from the highly urban Sloan Canyon NCA—connected with suburban neighborhoods in Henderson, Nevada, by backyard trails—to the nearly roadless, rugged high desert of the Grand Canyon-Parashant NM.
The report highlights the critical support provided by volunteer-based groups such as the Friends of the San Pedro River, Friends of Sloan Canyon. Community members participating in these “Friends” groups provide essential visitor contact, resource condition monitoring and rehabilitation services.
Volunteers provided more than 300,000 hours of work on Conservation System lands in 2007—critical labor valued at nearly $6 million, or more than 10 percent of the Conservation System’s operating budget that year. In-kind monetary donations further assist overburdened and under-resourced managers. These groups also provide a valuable connection to community members, effectively linking urban residents to their neighboring public lands.
Far more volunteer resources could be accommodated with additional funding for staff to coordinate volunteers and engage in community outreach. “When you consider that almost 22 million people in the West live within 25 miles of BLM lands today,” said Shepard, “it underscores how woefully inadequate current staffing and funding plans are to truly protect these amazing landscapes and culturally rich areas.”
The Time for Action is Now
“The Conservation System is home to some of the most archeological and culturally significant areas in the West, and includes vast wild and scenic landscapes that truly define this part of the country,” said Sarah Bates, a co-author of the report. “If we are unable to dramatically increase federal funding to protect these lands and their historical significance, it is possible that their unique cultural, ecological and scientific values may disappear altogether in our lifetime.”
The report’s prediction is both chilling and sobering. The “frontier” today for Americans in many ways lies within the lands of the Conservation System. These lands are a vital part of America’s soul. Working with our elected officials, we have a responsibility to work together to ensure that these lands are protected and properly conserved for generations to come.
Western Landscapes in the Crossfire proposes a variety of specific steps that can be taken now to address the problems identified in the report and to build upon the impressive network of volunteer organizations that provide critical support for Conservation System resources.
- Staff and resources: The $75 million requested by conservation groups for FY 2010 for the Conservation System will provide needed funding for project backlogs and management priorities. However, a more comprehensive needs assessment is required to determine adequate levels of staffing and resources for the System.
- Budgeting clarity and accountability: The BLM budget should include an Activity Account for the Conservation System with four Subactivity Accounts (National Monument/NCA; Wilderness/WSA; Rivers; and Trails). The BLM should be required to apply funds directed by the Administration and Congress towards the Conservation System to the intended purposes.
- Protection for adjacent lands: Adjacent public lands with high conservation values should be formally protected from development through purchase, exchange, and acquisition of conservation easements to fulfill landscape conservation objectives.
- Improved land use planning: Updates of management plans should involve a more rigorous review of local comprehensive land use plans and policies and efforts should be made to coordinate planning efforts that advance both Conservation System management and local land use goals.
- Development design: Conservation System managers should work with local governments and others to develop design guidelines that will minimize the impact of urbanization, provide buffers to open space and preserve wildlife corridors. They also should support efforts of adjacent landowners and developers to voluntarily integrate design features that achieve similar goals.
- Improved monitoring and enforcement: Stepping up efforts to monitor resource conditions and visitor use and impacts on Conservation System areas will help the BLM to avoid seemingly minor management issues becoming major problems. Immediate action is needed to prevent further damage to protected landscapes from illegal and uncontrolled activities such as off-highway vehicle use, vandalism of cultural sites and trash dumping.
The Sonoran Institute has long been an active advocate for protecting these BLM lands. Recognition and federal protection was a crucial first step. As this report indicates, growth and development—among other challenges—in a rapidly changing West is a clear threat to many of the lands in the System, both in the short term and over the long term.
We hope that the research and the stories included in this report underscore the need for providing additional funds to fully realize the potential of the National Landscape Conservation System and to truly protect these spectacular landscapes for future generations to enjoy.
Luther Propst is the Executive Director of the Sonoran Institute, a nonprofit organization that inspires and enables community decisions and public policies that respect the land and people of western North America. Since 1990, the Institute has been shaping the future of the West by helping communities conserve and restore natural and cultural assets and manage growth and change through collaboration, civil dialogue, sound information and big-picture thinking. The Western Landscapes in the Crossfire report can be found on the Sonoran Institute’s website at www.sonoraninstitute.org.