April 5, 2008

Conservation system protecting 26 million acres deserves permanency

The Patriot-News - Harrisburg, PA

Whether located in California, Montana or other states, the nation's public lands belong to all Americans.

And all Americans should care about this public landscape that incorporates much of the natural grandeur, historical and cultural sites that are part of the national inheritance.

But not all special places have been set aside as national parks, nor should they be. Many, in fact, are scattered among the 264 million acres administered by the Bureau of Land Management.

In 2000, then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt set aside by decree 26 million BLM acres of particular significance to form a National Landscape Conservation System.

Now an effort is under way in Congress, with a vote in the House scheduled for Wednesday, to give the conservation system permanent status.

No additional funding is involved in this legislation, which incorporates more than 800 existing units, including 15 national monuments and 604 wilderness study areas. But what the legislation does do is confirm in statute the special character of these places and ensure that they are treated accordingly.

Many of the units rival national parks in their attributes. But they are, and will continue to be, managed in a way that protects their remote and unblemished character. The system also represents a move away from managing individual public-land units to one that recognizes and encompasses the broader ecosystem and ancient human presence.

But not everyone thinks this is a good idea. There are those who want these areas to be open to exploitation or damaging off-road vehicles, as if access to millions upon millions of other acres isn't enough.

That's why it is important that this legislation be viewed as a national issue, not strictly as a western issue. We urge the Pennsylvania delegation, especially midstate Reps. Tim Holden, D-Schuylkill, and Todd Platts, R-York, to vote to protect this quintessential American landscape for today and for future generations.