When most Americans hear the words “public lands” they think of our national parks or national forests or perhaps even our national wildlife refuges. Yet, what might surprise them is that the largest category of our publicly owned land is administered by a little-known agency, the Bureau of Land Management, with a big mandate - taking care of 400,000 square miles, an area nearly four times the size of Colorado, on behalf of all Americans.
These sweeping lands stretch across 12 states including Alaska, and though relatively unknown compared to parks like Yellowstone, Yosemite, Mount Rushmore or the Grand Canyon, their very vastness represents a resource of enormous importance to us - a diverse trove of wild treasures. Happy Canyon in the archeologically rich lands near Canyonlands National Park in Utah is such a place. So, too are the towering sequoias in the Milk Ranch-Case Mountains of California or the desert of Otero Mesa in southern New Mexico, which stretches from horizon to horizon.
Forty years ago, a blue-ribbon commission studied these lands and found some spots so magnificent they could be national parks, national monuments or wilderness areas. Yet, the study also noted a serious problem: much of this terrain had never been examined to formally determine opportunities for conservation. The commission recommended “a comprehensive inventory of these public lands, to identify all such areas ... and they should be assigned a priority for protection” until lasting conservation decisions could be made by Congress.
Four decades later, this work is only now just beginning to safeguard what is left.
On December 23, Americans received a wonderful holiday present when Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, along with BLM Director Bob Abbey, issued a historic directive that reaffirms the ability of the BLM to determine if there are public lands with wilderness characteristics, including ecological, scenic, recreational, educational and scientific values. The bureau is to make this scientific assessment and planning analysis available to the American people, who will then have the opportunity to become involved in the process by which decisions are made affecting lands all of us own. Because it’s so important for us to participate, and for our country to protect wilderness areas for future generations of Americans, this order was designated “high priority” and the Secretary told the BLM to report back to him by the end of June.
Hardly typical of such legal documents, Salazar’s order includes inspirational phrases explaining that these lands with wilderness characteristics “provide visitors with rare opportunities for solitude and personal reflection,” noting that “many people and communities value these lands for hunting and fishing, observing wildlife, hiking, and other non-motorized and non-mechanized recreational uses.”
The order further stresses: “Managing an area to protect its wilderness characteristics provides unique opportunities and benefits for present and future generations that may otherwise be irreparably lost.” This new policy is a win for the public at large, for our leaders and for local residents. It means that, from on-the-ground planning that engages people in nearby communities all the way to the halls of Congress, everyone will have better information to make improved decisions about the fate of the wild places. Now the public can take into proper consideration all the resource values at stake, including the option of preserving some wonderful new wilderness areas.
Now it is incumbent upon us as Americans to carry the torch, and make sure our children can enjoy the clean water, scenic views and recreational activities just as we have had the opportunity to do. The revised approach to the largest segment of our public lands will give us that chance.
• Mike Matz is the director of the Pew Campaign for America’s Wilderness.