Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Big part of SW deserts keep BLM NLCS status

PEER and Sen. Feinstein help keep the scenic and fragile CDCA protected.

PALM SPRINGS CA -- The vast majority of the California Desert Conservation Area will stay included within the National Landscape Conservation System if an Omnibus Public Lands Bill which passed the Senate last month is finally enacted. An amendment by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) prior to the January 15, 2009 Senate approval addressed the status of the CDCA, but there is bureaucratic resistance within the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) which manages the vast area, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), where I serve as ecologist and southwest director.

The CDCA covers over 10 million acres of the Sonoran, Mojave and Great Basin deserts, approximately one-tenth of the entire California surface area. Legislation to codify the National Landscape Conservation System (NLCS), a network of national monuments, historic trails and conservation areas within the BLM, had been silent about how much of the CDCA would be included. The Feinstein amendment declares that all CDCA lands administered "for conservation purposes" will be included within the NLCS.

Current BLM classifications for CDCA indicate that approximately 8 million acres (80% of the CDCA) are now managed for conservation (either as closed or limited access areas to protect wildlife and habitat). Another 1.5 millions acres could be managed for conservation once other uses have ceased - meaning that up to 95% of the CDCA could ultimately be included, leaving out only the 500,000 acres now used for "intensive" off-road vehicle traffic.

"Senator Feinstein pledged to protect the California desert and she came through," stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that BLM staff in California had fought for its inclusion within the NLCS but had been overruled by the agency's Washington headquarters. "We hope that the new BLM leadership will embrace this opportunity that the departing leadership appeared to dread."

According to documents received by PEER through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against BLM, "disadvantages" perceived by agency leadership to including CDCA within the NLCS are that it -
  • "Increases public expectations that CDCA will be managed to emphasize conservation, protection, and restoration";
  • "Increases scrutiny of some existing resource uses" and
  • "Changes the management of the CDCA…" and increases "the complexity" of its budget.

"BLM headquarters still does not seem to understand that the reason the California Desert Conservation Area was created actually had something to do with conservation," Ruch added. "BLM regarding public expectations that public land should be protected as a 'disadvantage' is just plain perverse."

- adapted from PEER

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