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Commentary

This Land Is Your Land

November 27, 2003|Rebecca Watson | Rebecca Watson is assistant secretary of the Interior for land and minerals management.

The West, Thomas Jefferson believed, was the key to the nation's democratic promise and its economic prowess. Its lands would nurture civic engagement and a prosperous citizenry for centuries.

It's an alluring vision, one that drew me westward from the Midwest to the Rockies. It's a vision I practiced when I joined neighbors in Sheridan, Wyo., to build a historical park. It's a vision of democracy and conservation that Americans are reinvigorating and putting into practice on the BLM's public lands.

After decades of rancor over the fate of public lands, Americans are taking seriously the notion that these lands belong to them. In eastern Nevada, a coalition of public-land users and BLM staff are moving governance of public lands away from federal dictates to citizen direction. Their goal is to restore health and productivity to the Great Basin ecosystem, and do it with community stewardship. Everyday citizens want to be part of the planning and management of the lands.

Near Santa Fe, the Pueblo de Cochiti is partnering with the BLM to administer part of the Tent Rocks National Monument in order to best provide access, resource protection, environmental education and customer service.

The people of Grand County, Utah, are managing the BLM's Sand Flats Recreation Area, a world-class mountain biking destination -- for instance, by exploring multiple uses for the land. BLM and its citizen partners in Lemhi County, Idaho, are engaged in landscape restoration. In the Bradshaw Foothills near Phoenix, citizens are taking community planning to new heights by working with the BLM to plan and manage the open spaces and recreational use of its public lands.

These modern-day expressions of Jeffersonian democracy are just a hint of what the BLM calls "shared community stewardship" -- a citizen-directed conservation road map to the future governance of public lands, unveiled this month in Los Angeles.

Nowhere is the potential of this citizen movement more evident than in two disparate places: the urban-wildland interface of Tucson, Ariz., and the resource-rich sagebrush range of Moffat County, Colo. In both, the population is as diverse and inclusive as the landscape. And, in both, community stewardship is the common denominator in land restoration and citizen conservation.

In the early 1990s, the people of Greater Tucson rejected a BLM management proposal for Las Cienegas watershed. Sensing futility in preceding any further, the BLM took a novel tack: It let citizens take the lead. The Sonoita Valley Planning Partnership emerged. From its citizen proposals came the precedent-setting plan that Congress used to designate Las Cienegas National Conservation Area and which the BLM and its community partners will use to manage it.

Six hundred miles north in Colorado, the citizens of Moffat County are taking a different approach. After a try by the county commission to create a locally run trust of federal lands in the county -- a proposal decried by Colorado conservationists -- Moffat commissioners and local leaders opted for shared community stewardship.

Today, ranchers, hunters, recreationists and environmentalists are joining to plan and implement conservation activities on BLM lands. It's a small but vital first step toward democratic governance of a slice of public lands that, until now, has been embroiled in conflict.

Shared community stewardship is not a government program. It is the dream and drive of caring Americans for a more democratic governance of what are, after all, the people's lands.

It is the triumph of citizen participation at a time and in a landscape where the most cherished values of our national heritage can be protected for future generations.

It is the democratic promise of our public lands wedded to a prosperous citizenry and to the conservation responsibility we share as Americans.

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