Written by Ti Hays
In March, preservationists and conservationists cheered when President Obama signed into law the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009, which includes statutory recognition for the National Landscape Conservation System. Overseen by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the Conservation System contains about 27 million acres of federal land set aside for the protection of cultural and natural resources by previous Congresses and former presidents.
However, a report released last week by the Sonoran Institute examining the effects of urban growth on the Conservation System tempers somewhat our enthusiasm over this recent legislative success. According to the report, urban centers in the West—in particular, Phoenix and Las Vegas—are rapidly swallowing up the areas that once buffered Conservation System units from development. In some cases, as at Ironwood Forest National Monument near Tucson, housing developments are literally popping up along the borders of areas designated for protection
A litany of other problems introduced or amplified by urban growth are also discussed in the report, including vandalism to cultural sites, illegal off-road vehicle use, trash dumping, and target shooting, and inappropriate recreation. In one notable example, BLM was forced to exclude motor vehicles from 55,000 acres of the Sonoran Desert National Monument after off-road vehicle users repeatedly strayed from designated travel routes and caused extensive damage to the sensitive desert environment.
Lastly, the report questions whether BLM can effectively respond to the “special challenges” posed by urban growth, given that many units of the Conservation System are managed on a shoestring budget and law enforcement rangers are responsible for patrolling an average of 200,000 acres.
What can be done? Well, for starters, the report recommends that Congress increase funding for the Conservation System to $75 million, which would allow BLM to hire additional staff and commit more resources to protecting Conservation System units from the effects of urban growth. The report also recommends that BLM educate local governments on the need to consider the effects of urban growth on Conservation System units when planning for development on adjacent land. Finally, the report recommends that BLM pursue a variety of mechanisms, including land acquisitions, conservation easements, and legislative measures, to limit or prohibit development on private and public land adjacent to Conservation System units.
As shown by the report, urban growth in the West presents BLM with a complex array of management issues that will increasingly challenge the agency’s ability to protect many units of the Conservation System. Whether the agency can meet that challenge remains to be seen, and will likely depend in large part on the willingness of Congress to provide the Conservation System with the necessary funding and resources.
Ti Hays is the Public Lands Counsel at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.