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Celebrating Four Decades of a Landmark Public Lands Management Act

San Pedro Riparian Conservation Area is one of many sites managed by the Bureau of Land Management in Arizona. (Barbara Hawke/Arizona Wild)
San Pedro Riparian Conservation Area is one of many sites managed by the Bureau of Land Management in Arizona. (Barbara Hawke/Arizona Wild)
October 21, 2016

PHOENIX – On this day in 1976, President Gerald Ford signed legislation that changed the way the feds oversee millions of acres of land - for the first time requiring that they be managed with conservation in mind.

Before the Federal Land Policy Management Act (FLPMA), the Bureau of Land Management often leased out large parcels of land for oil and gas, mining and ranching without prioritizing other uses.

Barbara Hawke, executive director of the Arizona Wilderness Coalition, said of the 12.2 million acres managed by the BLM in Arizona, 1.4 million are wilderness.

"These lands were to be retained by the federal government. They were not to be sold except under very special and specific circumstances," Hawke explained. "I think that's very important today as people talk about the possibility of transferring federal lands to states or local governments."

Arizonans now enjoy such special, BLM-managed places as the impressive sandstone wave at the Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness.

FLPMA requires the agency to take an inventory of the state's wild lands, which led to the creation of 47 wilderness areas in the state. But Ken Rait, director of U.S. Public Lands for The Pew Charitable Trusts, said a number of threats persist to BLM-managed public lands across the West.

"Ninety percent of our public lands are open to oil and gas leasing, and 36 million acres are currently leased for oil and gas," said Rait. "Additionally, there are 340,000 1872 mining claims covering more than 7 million acres across our public land."

BLM lands also generate an estimated $2.8 billion a year for the U.S. economy. And former U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt (1993-2001) notes that these lands are much more valuable to the public when they remain open for outdoor pursuits.

"The recreational value – in terms of hunting, fishing, whitewater rafting, bird watching, camping – are really the biggest component of economic value to the surrounding communities and states," Babbitt said.

FLPMA also ensures that the public has input on how the lands are managed. There are several resource management plans in process and taking public input right now, including one in the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area.

Support for this reporting was provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Suzanne Potter, Public News Service - AZ