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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Get to Know Your BLM Lands

Chopaka Lake, Chopaka Mountain Wilderness Study Area 
Despite the fact that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) administers more public land (more than 270 million acres) than any other federal agency in the country, only about 450,000 acres exist within Washington State - the least of the twelve western states, and far less than holdings by other federal agencies.

Currently, the agency is drafting a new Resource Management Plan, which is an opportunity for the public to weigh in on recreational access and suggest protection of unroaded areas.  Washington Wild will be monitoring opportunities to include additional protections for unroaded BLM lands statewide within the upcoming draft.

The Juniper Dunes Wilderness Area
Meet Your BLM Lands
First, let’s learn more about BLM lands in Washington.

The majority are east of the Cascades, in the central Columbia Basin and in the highlands of northeastern Washington. The largest areas of these lands are in Lincoln County, and among the smallest is .25 acre Cotton Point Island in the San Juans. There is even one Wilderness Area about 20 miles northeast of Richland, WA called Juniper Dunes!

The BLM manages many unique ecosystems, which include scablands, ancient pine forests, shrub-steppe, Palouse grasslands, and riparian zones. Popular destinations such as Juniper Dunes, Chopaka Lake, and Escure Ranch/Rock Creek are some examples in Washington.

The National Landscape Conservation System – An Option for Washington’s BLM Lands

Generally, the BLM manages lands from an interdisciplinary approach, under the principles of multiple-use and sustained-yield. However, multiple-uses can include activities such as mining, off-road vehicle use, oil and gas exploration, and grazing. Recognizing the need for certain lands to be protected from this multiple-use mandate, the National Landscape Conservation System (NLCS) was established.

The NLCS began in 2000 and was permanently established in 2009 as part of the Omnibus Public Land Management Act. Washington Congressman Dave Reichert (R-WA08) played a leadership role in championing the system through the House of Representatives. NLCS lands managed by the BLM include National Monuments, National Conservation Areas, Wilderness and Wilderness Study Areas, National Historic & Scenic Trails, Wild & Scenic Rivers, and other lands designated for conservation by Congress or the President. 

Communities in the San Juan Islands have been fighting for protection of their BLM lands for decades, recently there has been broad support for the permanent protection under the NLCS. In 2011, Interior Secretary Salazar included these lands on a list of 18 “crown jewels” of public lands that have significant local support for protection. Protection has also been endorsed by the San Juan County Council, Governor Gregoire, and Senator Maria Cantwell, who introduced legislation to designate the lands as a National Conservation Area. However, since designating land as a National Conservation Area requires an Act of Congress, the protection effort could take years given the current gridlocked, anti-environmental Congress.

The effort to protect BLM lands in the San Juan Islands started with grassroots work from the local community. Their enthusiasm and dedication is inspiring, and a reminder that the voices of small communities with big visions can be heard.

A New Resource Management Plan for Washington

Resource Management Plans (RMPs) direct the management of BLM-administered public lands, and each BLM district is required to periodically update them. Since 1987, BLM lands have changed in the State, and total acreage has increased by over 100,000 acres. The new RMP will incorporate lands in the San Juan Archipelago not currently covered by an RMP.

The drafting of a new Resource Management Plan and the prospect of permanent protection for BLM lands in the San Juan Islands could lead to significant changes in how BLM land management in Washington. BLM lands in Washington have faced a lot of threats over the years, such as unmanaged off-road vehicle use and oil and gas leasing, but new policies and management strategies provide citizens with opportunities to help shape the future of these unique lands. Public involvement in the RMP planning process provides an important opportunity for the public to ensure that the BLM is managing these designated lands with conservation as a priority.

Drafts of the new RMP and its associated Environmental Impact Statement have not yet been published and likely won’t be for several months. Progress on these drafts is behind schedule, but once they are published there will be new opportunities for public involvement. Participating in these planning processes gives the public the opportunity to help protect public lands in Washington by shaping the future of BLM land management. For more information on the draft RMP process, visit the BLM’S Eastern Washington and San Juan RMP website or join the mailing list to receive future updates on the RMP process.

Stay tuned for how you can help Washington Wild support better management of these unique lands this fall.

Whitney Cox is our Conservation Intern here at Wild Washington. When not in the office you can find Whitney enjoying the great outdoors by hiking, observing wildlife, or gardening.

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