Celebrating the Protection of Our "Crown Jewel" Lands
On March 30, 2009, President Barack Obama signed into law one of the nation's most ambitious land protection initiatives. Called the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009, it includes a provision to permanently conserve and protect 26 million acres of national monuments, conservation areas, wild and scenic rivers and historic trails stretching across 11 Western states. These lands are considered the "crown jewel" areas of the National Landscape Conservation System (Conservation System), which are managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
The Institute has been an active player in advocating for permanent protection of these lands since 1999. Last year, the Institute partnered with the BLM and the National Trust for Historic Preservation to host a media tour highlighting some of these pristine areas in southern Arizona, including the Sonoran Desert and Ironwood Forest National Monuments, and the Las Cienegas and San Pedro Riparian National Con-servation Areas. The Institute has also done considerable economics research on these properties, highlighting their economic value to their neighboring communities.
"The President's signing of the Omnibus Act was a landmark event for the Institute and our many partners on this initiative," said John Shepard, Senior Adviser for the Sonoran Institute. "We were part of a huge effort that worked tirelessly for the past 10 years to ensure that these lands were formally recognized by Congress—a vital step in the protection process."
Financial Support Needed to Protect Crown Jewel Lands
A new Sonoran Institute report, Western Landscapes in the Crossfire: Urban Growth and the National Landscape Conservation System, concludes that increased federal funding is crucial in order to properly protect these highly used public lands. Issued in July 2009, the report focuses on growth-related challenges faced by eight Conservation System units in Arizona and Nevada.
"The door is now open for ensuring the permanent protection of these new lands through increased federal funding," explained Shepard. "Despite increased visitation and public enthusiasm, most of these lands are underfunded and understaffed, making them highly vulnerable to vandalism, illegal off-highway driving and resource destruction."
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. "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 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 Western Landscapes in the Crossfire report can be found at www.sonoraninstitute.org.