In 2000, during the waning days of the Clinton presidency, then Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt signed an administrative order establishing the National Landscape Conservation System (NLCS). Housed within the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the NLCS represented a significant shift in the agency’s mission and public persona. An organization once largely defined by its emphasis on “multiple uses,” now was home to a solidly conservation-oriented initiative, which currently includes more than 27 million acres. Even more noteworthy, the NLCS also encompassed a large number of newly designated National Monuments, many of which were distinguished by historic and cultural values, as well as their outstanding natural resources. Indeed, it was only in 1996 with the designation of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument that the BLM joined the National Park Service and the Forest Service in administering such sites.
Over the years, the NLCS has not been without its share of controversy and critiques. Conservatives in Congress have repeatedly attempted to de-fund the program, seeing it as an additional layer of federal bureaucracy and oversight on lands that might otherwise be leased for grazing or resource extraction. Preservationists, meanwhile, have not always appreciated the BLM’s management approach, with the National Trust for Historic Preservation going so far as to place the entire NLCS system on its “Most Endangered Places List” in 2005. In explaining the selection, the Trust commented,
“…BLM’s ability to provide this protection is seriously hampered by chronic understaffing and underfunding…Unless BLM gets the funding and staffing it needs for the National Landscape Conservation System, irreplaceable treasures will continue to be lost or destroyed, and important chapters in America’s story will be erased.”
Environmental organizations focused much of their critique on the politicization of the program during the Bush Administration, when funding, executive interference and even complete elimination became constant concerns.
Yet, despite these challenges, in 2009, Congress passed authorizing legislation for the NLCS as part of a larger omnibus public lands bill bus, achieving something that other large landscape conservation initiatives, including National Heritage Areas, have so far failed to achieve. “In order to conserve, protect, and restore nationally significant landscapes that have outstanding cultural, ecological, and scientific values for the benefit of current and future generations, there is established in the Bureau of Land Management the National Landscape Conservation System,” the bill reads, setting a new national precedent for the recognition and subsequent designation of large, complex, layered landscapes.
Yet, now, in an interesting twist, the BLM has decided to change the program’s name somewhat unofficially, referring to it simply as “National Conservation Lands.” What does such an alteration mean? Is it just semantics? I would argue no, it is not. For both practitioners and the public the term “conservation,” has specific and historic connotations, meanings not often associated with culture or with living landscapes. Instead, (rightly or wrongly) conservation is usually shorthand for natural resource centered activities and experiences. Including the word landscape, by contrast, offers an entirely different sensibility. It connotes a combination of the natural and human-made, of interaction, evolution and change, challenging the artificial boundaries between nature and culture. It also recognizes that even our “wildest” places were and perhaps still are sites shaped by people on an ongoing basis. Perhaps the word landscape is not so important, after all “National Landscape Conservation System,” is undeniably a mouthful, but I do not think so. Words are more than letters on a page, they contain myriad meanings and possibilities and landscape is not one I am quite yet ready to abandon.