11/18/2011 12:16 pm ET | Updated Jan 18, 2012

The Future of America's Conservation Lands

America's future has been the focus of many conversations in Washington D.C. these days, even in the conservation world. How do we protect the valuable eco-tourism and recreation jobs related to our open spaces? How do we prepare for a growing population? How should we plan for management of our land and waterways in a changing climate? Some of the decisions and strategy being developed right now will have lasting impact on the public lands The Wilderness Society works to defend and protect.

Just last month the Bureau of Land Management released its 15-year strategy for the National Landscape Conservation System (Conservation Lands). Although much work is needed to implement this strategy, the BLM has emphatically moved to drive the Conservation Lands into the 21st century as a model for conservation on a large, landscape scale. The BLM strategy is important to addressing some of America's future conservation and land management concerns.

The National Landscape Conservation System contains an enormous number of our nation's wildest and most historically significant public lands. Ranging from snow-covered peaks and carpets of wildflowers to winding rivers, lush streams, and high desert plateaus, the Conservation Lands protect the crown jewels of the public lands managed by the BLM. In short, the Conservation Lands stand proudly alongside our National Parks and National Wildlife Refuges as the cornerstones of American conservation. What makes the Conservation Lands different from its counterparts is also what makes it special. Providing a self-directed visitor experience and placing an emphasis on protecting large landscapes -- entire ecosystems and archaeological communities instead of small, isolated tracts surrounded by development -- are the defining characteristics of the Conservation Lands.

The strategy represents the latest directive from the BLM in a recent string of landmark moments related to the Conservation Lands. Although established in 2000, the National Landscape Conservation System was not signed into law by Congress until 2009. Last year, Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar signed a Secretarial Order that provided these treasured public lands extra protection, by mandating that the BLM must ensure that components of the Conservation Lands be managed to prioritize the natural, cultural and historic values for which they were designated over conflicting uses.

The BLM's new 15-year strategy proudly sets forth strong goals and concrete actions for the sound management of the Conservation Lands. Now beginning its second decade, the stewards of the Conservation Lands have the direction they need to continue to push the National Landscape Conservation System towards becoming the nation's most innovative system of public land protected for the benefit of all Americans.

The strategy itself identifies four themes that will positively impact the Conservation Lands:
  • Primarily, the BLM clearly states that conservation is and will be the highest priority for the management and planning of the lands within the system.
  • There is a focus on collaboratively managing the Conservation Lands as a part of the larger landscape -- an innovative and important approach to conservation that sets the Conservation Lands apart from its peers
  • The strategy also identifies the need to raise awareness internally within the BLM and externally with the American public about the values and benefits of the Conservation Lands.
  • Besides these strong overarching themes, the strategy also puts forth a plan for each state BLM office. Each office must develop a statewide plan for the Conservation Lands that is tiered to the national strategy, a powerful opportunity for the Conservation Lands to take a prioritized place in the BLM's work.
The BLM is now faced with its biggest challenge: consistent implementation of this ambitious strategy. It is up to the BLM to embrace and implement this vision over the next 15 years to ensure that the Conservation Lands get the protection and support they deserve. Much of the strategy the BLM has outlined can be implemented now.

We need to see the BLM immediately embark on developing state plans for the Conservation Lands so that the excellent strategy and its goals are disseminated throughout the agency. As the Conservation Lands begin its second decade of existence, the BLM has provided a way to ensure these lands continue providing the economic values they bring to local communities, as well as ensuring they are adequately prepared to address the issues of climate change.