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Congress moves closer to preserving Western beauty

It is considering designating millions of US-owned acres as a permanent conservation system.

By Faye BowersCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / March 14, 2008

Nature's wonders: The Black Rock Desert-High Rock Canyon Emigrant Trail in northwest Nevada is part of the National Landscape Conservation System.

brian beffort/the wilderness society

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Sonoran Desert National Monument, Ariz.

This swath of desert is in full bloom. The mountainsides blanketed by towering saguaro forests are now dotted with yellow and orange Mexican poppies, purple lupine, and white chicory. The monument is home to three wilderness areas and two historic trails.

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These 487,000 acres sit along a corridor between Arizona's two largest metropolitan areas, Phoenix and Tucson, where demographers predict the population will increase from 5 million people to more than 10 million by 2040.

That's a key reason, many conservation and wildlife advocates say, Congress should permanently designate this national monument and more than 800 additional federally managed properties as the National Landscape Conservation System (NLCS).

The House Natural Resources Committee moved toward that Wednesday, voting the National Landscape Conservation System Act out of committee. The bill can now be scheduled for a vote by the full House. The Senate, meanwhile, is ready to vote on a similar bill.

"Congress … took a major step toward permanently recognizing the National Landscape Conservation System," said Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, in a statement. "These places are living history books of the American West, and by unifying them into a single system under the [Bureau of Land Management's] careful management, we are ensuring that these irreplaceable treasures ... are preserved for future generations."

These disparate 860 units of land total some 26 million acres and already have some protection. In June 2000, former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt established the NLCS by decree to protect the "crown jewels" of the public lands managed by the BLM. The NLCS includes 15 national monuments, 13 national conservation areas, and historic trails.

But BLM officials as well as conservation and wildlife advocates say official designation of the NLCS is essential.

"While I don't have any particular reason to believe other secretaries [of the Interior] will come in and undo the system, the fact is it can be pulled apart to disparate units," says Elena Daly, BLM's director of the NLCS in Washington. "It gives us legislative authority to exist and would require legislative action to undo. It would put us on par with National Park Service."