March 4, 2008

Groups, feds join to push law aimed at saving lands

The Arizona Republic

IRONWOOD FOREST NATIONAL MONUMENT - This place 30 miles from Tucson, with its dramatic vistas, archaeological heritage and unique ecology, is just one of more than 800 properties in the federal Bureau of Land Management's National Landscape Conservation System being touted for a new American preservation network.

Elena Daley, a BLM administrator and the conservation-system director, was here last week to join forces with environmental groups in support of a congressional act that would permanently designate 26 million acres of Western lands for conservation.
"This is like being part of a birthing," she said. "I think we are all about to witness the next major conservation system in the United States."

The Ironwood Forest monument is one of many "crown jewels" in the patchwork of iconic BLM lands spread over 13 states. Among the destinations: Vermilion Cliffs in Arizona, Lewis and Clark Trail in Idaho and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah.

All told, the system includes 15 national monuments, 14 national conservation areas, 161 wilderness areas, 10 historic trails and 38 wild and scenic rivers.

With congressional approval, these would become part of a permanent package comparable to the national park system. The bill before Congress awaits a floor vote in the Senate; a parallel House measure, with 65 co-sponsors, is scheduled for subcommittee hearings in two weeks.

The law would provide no new money or regulations, nor would it automatically change recreational use, grazing rights or mining in the target areas. But proponents say its adoption would serve as a launching pad for protective steps.

"It'll come, but it's delicate," says John Shepard, deputy director at the Sonoran Institute, a land-conservation group that sponsored Daley's visit to Arizona. "What it does is, it puts the system on a level playing field with the national parks and the national forests."

The Sonoran Institute is part of the Conservation System Alliance, a coalition of 74 recreational, environmental, religious and other groups pushing the measure with support from the Bush administration.