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America's public lands are a treasure.  Largely in the West, millions of acres are free, open and available, whether for enjoying a wilderness backpack, rockhounding, petroglyphing, hiking, camping, collecting pinenuts in the fall, or just plain enjoying the immense vistas of undeveloped and open lands.   Others use public lands for commercial reasons - grazing, mining, and logging.  Most people take public lands for granted.

Public Lands administered by the U.S. Bureau of Land ManagementNot too long ago, the mission of the Bureau of Land Management, the federal agency which administers the public lands, was to dispose of these lands.  While getting rid of the "lands that nobody wanted," the BLM  emphasized consumptive uses - grazing, mining, and logging - of public grass, minerals and trees.  The 1934 Taylor Grazing Act was the principal legislation guiding BLM's management of public lands.

Twenty-five years ago on October 21, 1976, Congress passed and President Gerald Ford signed the Federal Land P olicy and Management Act, generally referred to as "FLIP-MA. " This controversial legislation closed the last of the Western frontier by changing BLM's mission from public land disposal to retention.  The BLM "organic act" endorsed the principles of multiple use and sustained yield and required comprehensive resource management plans.  In an attempt to end essentially unregulated grazing and development impacts on wildlife habitat, riparian areas, and cultural resources, the new law required good management and protection of all values found on public lands.  New programs were established - designating Areas of Critical Environmental Concern, making payments to counties in lieu of taxes, recording mining claims, designating and protecting wilderness study areas, establishing the Kings Range and Desert National Conservation Areas, and sunsetting the old Grazing District Advisory Boards.

Much has been accomplished over the last 25 years as BLM implemented its new mission, yet the BLM report card is mixed.   BLM has clearly followed its legal mandate for multiple uses of public lands, although the debate continues over whether Congress intended for every use to occur on every acre of public lands.  The vast majority of public lands have been  retained in public ownership, despite periodic attacks by Congress and various Sagebrush Rebels.  Some lands, usually around land-locked Western towns and cities, have been privatized and resulting public revenues have been used to acquire environmentally sensitive lands such as at Lake Tahoe.

BLM has established many Areas of Critical Environmental Concern on public lands, yet special protection and management plans are rarely funded.  Funding many essential public services from roads to schools to hospitals, counties receive millions of dollars annually from the BLM and other federal agencies in lieu of taxes which would be required if the lands were private.  All mining claims have been recorded, but mining is still managed under the 1872 Mining Act so that even mining with significant negative environmental impacts must be allowed by the BLM.  BLM's west-wide review of all public lands for their wilderness values has begun to result in formal Congressional designation of BLM wilderness areas.  Many very popular National Conservation Areas have been established on public lands.

Public Lands administered by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management BLM grades for successfully implementing FLPMA requirements for 'sustained yield' management are much lower, with many species of plants and animals being listed under the Endangerered Species Act as endangered, threatened, or candidate.  Sage Grouse population declines of over 80% reflect the loss and degradation of critical sagebrush habitat from overgrazing, no-burn fire policies, range 'improvements' for livestock grazing, roads and powerlines in the wrong places, the invasion of noxious weeds, and recently extensive habitat lost in the fire-cheatgrass cycle.  Recently, BLM adopted grazing standards and guidelines for healthy rangelands, but to date, significant grazing reform on public lands has not occurred.

It will take more than a crystal ball to see what is in store for BLM-administered public lands in the next 25 years.  Conservation efforts by Sierra Club volunteers and others could have significant impacts as changing administations push for either more resource production or
more resource protection.  Which future do you want for the public lands?

The next 25 years for the public lands will be determined by how much the public cares about these and other issues. Sierra Club members are invited to become directly involved in the Toiyabe Chapter's work on public lands issues including Sage Grouse conservation, Walker Lake, mining reform, ecosystem restoration, wilderness or other public lands issues.  Please contact Rose Strickland, Public Lands Committee at (775) 329-6118 for more information.

--Rose Strickland


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