Why you cannot take protective land designations for granted

I started to be involved in conservation issues when I was 15 growing up in southern California.  I watched natural areas that I loved being bulldozed into oblivion for sprawl development.  I’ve continued my conservation involvement ever since.  I am now retired and 72. 

Along the way, I had many conservation-related jobs, including as an environmental attorney, registered lobbyist, watershed project director, and county zoning administrator.  My last job was working for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) for 15 years as a Planning and Environmental Coordinator. 

I am providing my long and eclectic conservation background because I want to share one of the most important lessons that I’ve learned over the years.  It is that you can never take for granted that public lands designated by statute or administrative process for permanent protection are actually going to be protected by those charged with their protection.

Many people seem to naively think that once a campaign for a protective designation is successful that they can walk away to fight new battles.  The reality is that that protective designation is only the beginning of what needs to be a constant monitoring process to hold those responsible accountable for that protection. 

Some conservation groups understand and work under that reality.  Sadly, some other groups take credit for the initial success and then largely disappear.  When you work closely on these issues, you start to distinguish between these types of groups (the serious long-termers versus the superficial short-termers).  All support for conservation is good, but some is more lasting and better than others.

This reality is important to understand for many reasons and if you care about upholding the rule of law against those who disrespect it. 

For example, the Biden administration has laudably committed to the “30 by 30” conservation campaign to “protect” 30 percent of our nation’s lands and waters by 2030.  But what can or should qualify as “protected” for determining both the baseline and progress on this ambitious commitment.

National parks and seashores?  Utah’s “mighty five” national parks are increasingly suffering from excessive visitation and related resource damage.  The state of Utah has put millions into an advertising campaign to promote these parks even though the National Park Service (NPS) is struggling to deal with the mounting problems.  Tourism dollars have become more important than protecting park resources. 

What about Point Reyes National Seashore in California?  This is where NPS continues to allow harmful cattle grazing and dairy farming even though those land uses were supposed to be phased out many years ago. 

On Fire Island National Seashore in New York, there is constant pressure by local wealthy communities on NPS to support beach scraping and nourishment projects.  This is where huge amounts of energy are used to move sand around on beaches or dredge up offshore sand and pump it onto beaches in front of homes that should never have been built on a dynamic barrier island.

What about BLM’s national monuments and national conservation areas?  Like Gold Butte National Monument in Nevada where Cliven Bundy blatantly continues his harmful trespass cattle grazing in threatened Mojave desert tortoise critical habitat.  Or the Sonoran Desert National Monument in Arizona where harmful grazing has continued for many years.  Or the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area that suffered from chronic trespass grazing.  Or the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area in Utah that is under attack by a local development cabal to build a catastrophic Northern Corridor Highway (NCH) even though feasible alternatives exist outside the protected area.

What about BLM Areas of Critical Environmental Concern (ACECs)?  I know of ACECs that BLM allowed to be damaged by livestock grazing and other land uses.  And I know of one ACEC established to protect riparian habitat where BLM could have but failed to challenge a detrimental upstream diversion due to politics.

What about private lands acquired with Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) monies for permanent federal protection?  I am aware of such LWCF purchases where BLM still allowed harmful or trespass grazing to occur.  On the NCH fight in Utah, BLM previously approved a highway that would jeopardize over $20,000,000 worth of LWCF acquired parcels for permanent tortoise habitat protection.

I could describe more examples but you see the pattern.  So given this appalling reality, how do we change it?  The short answer is stronger and more sustained public involvement to hold responsible officials fully accountable.  Those of them who adequately protect the protected lands under their care should be rewarded.  Those who don’t should be disciplined or fired.  The harsh reality continues because there is not sufficient accountability nor consequences for management decisions. 

If you care about one or more protected areas, don’t take them for granted.  Find out who manages them, closely monitor their actions, and challenge them when they make bad decisions.  

Endless pressure, endlessly applied is often what it takes to achieve a land protection designation.  It is also what it takes to ensure that that designation is effectively implemented.

More on the failure to protect the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area



On the BLM’s recently released Public Lands Rule:


On stopping the Bundy trespass debacle:

On BLM corporate culture reform needs:







  1. Wayne Tyson Avatar
    Wayne Tyson

    Me too (I’m 85), but I went right into the (applied) ecosystem restoration route.

  2. Wayne Tyson Avatar
    Wayne Tyson

    Oh, I forgot! (Nothing new there.)

    DEDICATION, not designation? Deed restrictions?

  3. Selina Sweet Avatar
    Selina Sweet

    Most interesting and unsurprising.Perhaps.To get some organization into the mix. Derive a Citizens Environmental Oversight Guardians Agency. (or Citizen Environmental Accountability Team) Naming environmental organizations that don’t disappear after the
    splash of a newly protected area and then calling on them to submit “x” number of names from their organization who commit to visiting, writing and submitting oversight reports specific to the protected area (PtReyes Nat’l Seashore for example) to the Guardians Agency. Which zoom meets and sets up the organizational structure to manage communications between the in the field visitor/observations and the central Guardians Agency. Enlist specific Senators and Representatives who have demonstrated passionate support of protected areas to receive bi-annual reports of the quality of adherence of each protected area to the rules. Enlist major environmental organizations, e.g. Sierra Club, NRDC,Sierra Club, Evironmental Defense Fund, Wilderness Society etc. to have one column in their newsletters dedicated for summary reports of the level of fidelity of current environmental practices vis a vis original rules (e.g. no cattle grazing) established upon the origin of the protected area.

  4. Jeff Hoffman Avatar
    Jeff Hoffman

    I fully agree with everything that Richard Spotts wrote here, but that’s also a superficial and temporary solution. Humans need to evolve mentally and spiritually so that they DON’T WANT to harm the natural environment nor any of the native life there. In fact, they have to evolve enough to be totally repulsed by and strongly opposed to any of that. This is a battle for hearts & minds, and unless we can win that battle, environmental victories will continue to be temporary, as John Muir or David Brower pointed out. See this book outline for more details: https://rewilding.org/fixing-humans-by-expanding-our-consciousness/

  5. Wayne Tyson Avatar
    Wayne Tyson

    When “we” humans developed culture, we abandoned “Eden,” trading our birthright for a mess of pottage that eludes evolution.

  6. Anotherview Avatar

    People care about what they know, and they know what they can see and visit. So the sort of advocacy the author is hoping for probably needs to come from local people who can provide boots on the ground for surveillance and hands-on restoration.

    How to develop that local contingent of folks is key. Most national conservation organizations don’t do that very well. State and local land trusts and “friends-of” groups seem to do better in my experience.

    Talking heads who visit places and then complain about the management also don’t change much on the ground either. I’d rather hear from the local folks who are working on local places and hear about their successes and what they did to be successful.

  7. Chris Zinda Avatar
    Chris Zinda

    Very nice. Thank you.

    Adding, the ultimate land protection is designated Wilderness that has a legal preservation mandate. IMV, there is no organization that enforces this mandate through litigation, as 99% self-id as conservationists, their action reflecting this reality.

  8. Michael Kellett Avatar

    I agree with many of the points made in the article. However, the author lumps national parks in with a host of other types of federal land designations. Although perhaps not intentional, this gives the false impression that parks are no more protected than other conservation areas under BLM or the U.S. Forest Service.

    National parks are certainly imperfect, and the author points out correctly that in some parks there are problems with visitor impacts and poor management decisions. Overall, however, national parks have far stronger protection than any other federal land designations, other than wilderness designated under the Wilderness Act.

    The strongest protection of all is national park wilderness — national park lands with a wilderness overlay. In fact, 41% of national parklands are designated wilderness and another 30% are roadless and recommended for wilderness designation. About 52% of all wilderness acreage is in National Park System units.

    In contrast, designated wilderness covers only about 19% of national forest lands (another 30% is under the less-protective Roadless Rule), 14% of national wildlife refuge lands, and less than 4% of BLM lands.

    There is a common perception that there are widespread threats to national parks from people “loving them to death.” Some popular national park sites certainly suffer impacts from heavy visitation, such as Yosemite Valley, Old Faithful, Cades Cove, and Cadillac Mountain. However, most national park lands are remote, roadless, and lightly visited. Even the most-visited National Park, Great Smoky Mountains, is 89% roadless and recommended for wilderness designation. Most of the park is not heavily used and the vast majority of people stay on the roads or on short trails off the main roads. Despite the congestion in Yosemite Valley, 94% of Yosemite National Park is designated wilderness and one can get away from crowds by hiking a mile or two off the roads.

    In contrast, BLM and Forest Service national monuments, conservation areas, AECs, and other special management areas are only partially protected. Among the destructive activities allowed, depending on the unit, are logging, livestock grazing, hunting for predators, recreational shooting, and off-road motorized vehicle riding.

    Even wilderness areas on BLM and Forest Service lands are less protected than in national parks. For example, wolves are safe when they are in Yellowstone National Park, but the moment they walk into an adjacent national forest wilderness area they can be — and have been — killed by hunters. Livestock grazing — one of the most destructive land uses — is not allowed in any national park, including Great Basin in Nevada, but it is allowed in the BLM Basin and Range National Monument in Nevada and in almost all other BLM monuments.

    National parks with a wilderness overlay is the strongest federal land protection. The next best is BLM, Forest Service, or National Wildlife Refuge wilderness. A significant expansion national parks and wilderness can get us a lot closer to reaching 30×30. We should be focusing intently on this goal.

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Richard Spotts has had a life-long interest in conservation issues including those relating to public lands.  Before retirement in 2017, he had a variety of conservation related jobs including as an environmental attorney, registered lobbyist (U.S. Congress and California Legislature), watershed project director, and county zoning administrator.  His last job was as the Planning and Environmental Coordinator for the Bureau of Land Management's Arizona Strip District Office where he worked for 15 years.

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Richard Spotts