National Conservation Lands – Some of the West’s Most Spectacular Landscapes

By Linda Castro   |   This year the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) celebrates the 15th anniversary of the establishment of the National Conservation Lands, previously known as the National Landscape Conservation System (NLCS). This system recognizes the national importance of, and increases protection for, almost 30 million acres of the most spectacular natural areas in our western states – places such as the Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument, North Fork American Wild and Scenic River, and the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail. While the term “NLCS” continues to be used, several years ago the Department of the Interior and many conservationists began to use the term “National Conservation Lands” reasoning that it was a more accurate description of the system’s components.

With the exception of two small National Conservation Lands in Maryland and Florida, all of the National Conservation Lands are located in the western states. Currently, California has about five million acres of National Conservation Lands.

A brief look at the BLM’s history helps to illustrate the importance of National Conservation Lands. In 1812, Congress established the General Land Office to oversee the disposition of federal lands that had been acquired from other countries. As that century progressed and our nation’s western border pushed farther west, Congress began to enact homesteading and mining laws to support our nation’s major policy goal at that time – getting the Western territories settled.

Photo above: Amargosa River Basin by Nancy Good

Then, in the early 1900s, Congress directed the Executive Branch to manage activities on the remaining public western lands. In the 1920s and 1930s, Congress enacted laws related to the management of mineral leasing, grazing, and timber removal on public lands. During that time, the U.S. Grazing Service was created to manage the public rangelands.

In 1964, the U.S. Grazing Service was merged with the General Land Office to form the Bureau of Land Management within the Department of Interior (compared to the years the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. National Park Service were created – 1905 and 1916, respectively.) When the BLM was created, there were thousands of laws related to the management of public lands, so the BLM did not have a specific or clear legislative mandate for another 12 years, until Congress enacted the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) in 1976.

Congress stated in FLPMA that the existing public lands would remain public lands and that the BLM was to manage these public lands and their various resource values, “[S]o that they are utilized in the combination that will best meet the present and future needs of the American people.” FLPMA finally gave a specific purpose to the BLM and told the agency how it was to manage our public lands. FLPMA also recognized the special character of the public lands in the California deserts by designating them as the California Desert Conservation Area (CDCA).

In 2000 Interior Secretary, Bruce Babbitt signed an administrative order that created the NLCS for lands managed by the BLM. This marked a significant change in the overall philosophy and goals of the BLM – managing components of our public lands for the sole purposes of conserving, protecting and restoring them, rather than for developing them or giving them away. However, without congressional authorization, there was no guarantee that the system would be a permanent one.

Finally, in 2009, President Obama signed the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 (Public Law 11-111), which included a bill to permanently establish the NLCS. The Act established the system, “In order to conserve, protect and restore nationally significant landscapes that have outstanding cultural, ecological, and scientific values for the benefit of current and future generations ….” The Act explained that these lands are to be managed in a manner that protects the values for which the components of the system were designated. In practice this means that areas that are included in the National Conservation Lands receive a significant degree of protection from various types of development and destructive activities. (However, as is often the case on federal lands outside of national parks, loopholes still allow the development of mining claims.) The BLM also receives separate, additional funding to enable them to better manage these areas.

The Omnibus Act further spelled out which BLM lands would be components of the system — National Monuments, National Conservation Areas, Wild and Scenic Rivers, Wilderness Study Areas, National Scenic and Historic Trails, Wilderness Areas, and any other area that Congress designated to be administered by the BLM for conservation purposes, including “public land within the California Desert Conservation Area administered [by the BLM] for conservation purposes.” Rather than individually identifying those areas in the CDCA that would become part of the National Conservation Lands, Congress deferred to the BLM to decide which lands in the CDCA would be classified as “administered for conservation purposes” and thus added to the system.

Congressional and Presidential designations of BLM lands such as Wilderness and National Monument designations had taken place prior to the enactment of the Omnibus Act. All of these lands, pursuant to the Omnibus Act, became part of the NLCS upon the Act’s enactment. With the Omnibus Act, Congress also added many new places to the system.

Most recently, the BLM chose to use the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) as a vehicle to propose new additions to the National Conservation Lands. One of the stated purposes of the DRECP was to, “Identify and incorporate public lands managed for conservation purposes within the California Desert Conservation Area as components of the National Landscape Conservation System, consistent with the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 (PL 111-11).”

In the DRECP’s Preferred Alternative, the BLM proposed that approximately 3.5 million acres in the CDCA be added to the National Conservation Lands. Once the BLM identifies the National Conservation Lands in California’s deserts through the DRECP process, an argument can be made that it would take an act of Congress to strip that protection from those lands. However, this has not yet been tested in the courts. Many spectacular and worthy proposed additions were included in the DRECP, such as Afton Canyon, the Amargosa River Basin, Amboy Crater, Big Morongo Canyon, California Valley, Chuckwalla Bench, Dublin Hills, Fossil Falls, Panamint Valley, Patton Military Camps, Rainbow Basin/Owl Canyon, Ship Mountains, Short Canyon, a portion of Silurian Valley, and Trona Pinnacles. Many of these places are well-known, such as Silurian Valley, often referred to as the gateway to Death Valley. The following places may be lesser known.

  • Afton Canyon is located off of I-15, about 37 miles northeast of Barstow. The stretch of the Mojave River that runs through this canyon is famous for its outstanding scenery and important riparian habitat, where such sensitive species as the desert bighorn sheep find refuge. The area has also been designated as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC) to protect plant and wildlife habitat, and to preserve scenic values of the riparian area within the canyon.
  • The Amargosa River Basin, running east of Death Valley National Park, through Tecopa and Shoshone, contains one of the two largest assemblages of endemic and rare species in North America. The critically endangered Amargosa vole also makes this area home.
  • California Valley lies adjacent to the Old Spanish National Historic Trail, about five miles south/southwest of the California-Nevada border. This region provides a critical habitat connection between the Nopah Range, Kingston Range and Pahrump Valley for such sensitive species as the desert tortoise. It is also an important part of the Amargosa River watershed.
  • Rainbow Basin/Owl Canyon, located about 10 miles north of Barstow, is one of the most scenic areas in California’s deserts, due to its unusual rock formations and multicolored sands and rocks. It has also been designated as an ACEC due to its landscape features and paleontological resources.
  • Short Canyon lies off of Highway 395, about 10 miles north/northwest of Ridgecrest. More than 290 species of plants inhabit this area. It is frequented by neo-tropical migratory birds after wintering in Central and South America and wintering birds that move out of the Sierra Nevada from December through March. Spring rains in this area bring one of the best wildflower blooms in California’s deserts.

While the establishment of the NCL system marked an important step in the BLM’s evolution, the system is not perfect. While the durability of NCL designations remains an open question that the courts will likely ultimately decide, many important BLM lands in California’s deserts currently lack any significant protections. Including them in the NCL system would mean that they will be recognized for their unique and irreplaceable characteristics and managed to prioritize their conservation. This is an important step in our journey toward eventually getting them the permanent and strict protections that they deserve. For this reason, conservationists continue to work to convince the BLM to include additional areas in the system.

Linda Castro is the DRECP Organizer for the California Wilderness Coalition, a California non-profit organization that works to build support for the protection of California’s wildest remaining places.