Taking some of the boldest steps on conservation since the days of President Theodore Roosevelt and the creation of the National Park System, the federal government is today moving forward with a plan to keep vast expanses of public land free of development.
The new system, tentatively called the National Landscape Monuments, represents a substantial - and controversial - shift in US policy. Historically, the brightest jewels of America's landscape have been governed by the Park Service, while other "leftovers" have been left open to mining, logging, and drilling. Now, many of the sweeping deserts and sandstone buttes not contained within national parks will be afforded a new level of protection.
For Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt - perhaps the most unabashedly conservationist secretary in the agency's history - the plan represents a watermark achievement. And for President Clinton, entering an executive coda, it could become one of his longest-lasting legacies.
"The fact is that the West is filling up," said Mr. Babbitt, announcing the program here last week. "The West is changing, and now there's a sense of urgency. We're saying, 'What is it we want to see 50 to 100 years from now?' "
The National Landscape Monuments will operate within the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which administers some 264 million acres of federal lands, mostly in the West. Although the BLM will continue to manage lands for resource development, under the new system, the agency will also oversee "conservation areas," which allow recreation and some hunting and grazing - but prohibit mining, drilling, and logging.
Babbitt's stewardship agenda, while unprecedented, mirrors public sentiments, says Jan Laitos, a natural-resource law professor at the University of Denver. Citizens today place a premium on wilderness and recreation, and federal policy had to reflect that.
"It was just a matter of time before the Interior Department had to ratify what the public is demanding," he says.
But others criticize Babbitt's readiness to sidestep Congress, and rely on Mr. Clinton's executive authority to create monuments under the Antiquities Act.
They point out that even Stewart Udall - the Interior Secretary under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson who helped enact the Wilderness Act - approached most land protection legislatively. Babbitt, meanwhile, is eyeing a dozen sites around the West that the administration might tab for monument status without congressional input.
In contrast with most national monuments - which Babbitt deems "postage-stamp sized" - the new landscape monuments will encompass entire ecosystems, he says.
The emerging program builds on a theme initiated in 1996, when Clinton established the 1.7 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah. Last month, Clinton exercised his clout again, adding 1 million acres of land near Grand Canyon National Park.
While publicly applauded, some say the shift away from resource development could spell danger for the nation.
"These policies seem short-sighted - or maybe they're too far-sighted," says Marc Smith, director of land and environment for the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States. "I'm beginning to wonder if the BLM remembers what 'multiple use' is."
By mandate of Congress, the BLM manages public lands for "multiple use" - a mix of activities intended to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of public lands. As recently as the 1980s, that meant substantial development of extractive industries on public lands.
Today, critics say, that mixture has disappeared.
"I don't think there has been any coordination between energy policy and land policy in this administration," says Mr. Smith.
Within the context of history, though, modern trends in land policy are not surprising, say scholars. Typically, when a government wants to expand its domain - as the United States did in the West - it does so by subsidizing development, says Thomas Crocker, a professor of energy and environment at the University of Wyoming in Laramie.
"They subsidize through extractive industries to get people there," he says. "We see this with governments all over the world - from Russia to Latin America."
Then, as development takes hold in a region, values shift. "For approximately a century, resource industries were king of the hill in the American West," he adds. "Now, with the increase in population, you have people here who have very different views of how to use these resources."
Outdoor recreation, he says, has simply grown into a more valuable commodity.
Harlin Savage, who heads the American Lands Alliance's Boulder, Colo., field office, agrees. "Recreation is huge now. It has just exploded in the last two decades," she says. "We all want to enjoy these lands, and explore them, and play in them."
Last month, when Clinton created a new national monument at Grand Canyon, 78 percent of Arizonans favored the move, a public poll indicated.
But that level of support has not been reflected in the political process, says Babbitt, a native of Flagstaff, Ariz. And unless Congress moves quickly to protect Western lands, he warns that the president will do the job for them.
"It's time to access our surroundings now that we have 100 times as many people," he says. "The public is demanding this change. People who came out West for a different life are now finding congestion, sprawl..., and unrestrained exploitation of the land."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society