Conservation Toolbox

Sep 21, 2023


Whether completing a woodworking project or preparing a gourmet meal, selecting the right tool for the job can make all the difference. The same applies to conservation—there are many different mechanisms and designations for achieving conservation objectives like protecting land, water, and wildlife. Beyond some of the more well-known examples, like national parks, national monuments, and national wildlife refuges, there are other lesser-known types of conservation tools that can achieve tremendous benefits, some of which are tailored to a particular ecosystem or landscape, wildlife movement and habitat protection, or other recreational or land protection purposes.

Some conservation tools provide stronger, more durable protections than others, while some are less onerous to implement and can be applied more quickly. It will take a combination of conservation tools in order to reach the national goal of protecting 30 percent of America’s lands and waters by 2030, otherwise known as the 30×30 goal. Scientists have shown that protecting and restoring natural areas is the most effective way to slow extinctions and support resilient ecosystems in the face of accelerating climate change and biodiversity loss. Currently, almost 13 percent of American lands are protected. It is ambitious but achievable to conserve 30 percent of America’s lands and waters by 2030, and the good news is there is evidence that given the chance, nature can recover.

Communities across the country are already working to protect special places using myriad tools for private conservation, Tribally-led land protection initiatives, as well as local, state, and federal public land protection mechanisms. The purpose of this report is to provide a centralized and navigable inventory of the various federal conservation mechanisms and designations—a metaphorical “Conservation Toolbox.” The Conservation Toolbox is designed to help visualize the breadth of conservation tools across different federal land management agencies, as well as their relative strength and durability. 

At a glance


National Conservation Lands

National Conservation Lands are an umbrella term for Bureau of Land Management (BLM)-managed public lands with a conservation designation. National Conservation Lands hold designations including national monuments, national conservation areas, wilderness, wilderness study areas, wild and scenic rivers, and national scenic and historic trails, many of which are included in this report. In total, there are 905 units of National Conservation Lands in the U.S., covering about 37 million acres. These areas provide varying levels of protection and recreation access, as well as impose some restrictions on extractive activities.


The categories selected for inclusion in this report were chosen based on an acceptance of both designations (i.e. national parks) and mechanisms (i.e. resource management plans) as means for achieving conservation objectives. In addition, conservation categories within an umbrella protection category (i.e. National Conservation Lands or the National Wildlife Refuge System) are enumerated to show the breadth of tools available under a broader protection category, and how each tool fits within that broader category of conservation. 

Some conservation designations or categories can be administered by multiple federal agencies. For example, national monuments can be managed by the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service and other federal agencies and Tribal nations. However, finding examples and descriptions that speak to the broad applicability and use of a particular conservation category can be challenging, which is why this report identifies crossover in terms of conservation tool use and applicability by multiple management entities. 

For each conservation category, a description of the tool is provided in terms of what it does, the means by which it is established, how permanent and protective it is, and how it interacts with other types of protection or land management protocols. Examples are provided to demonstrate how each conservation category can be applied in the real world. Links to additional resources are shared for readers who want to learn more. 

While it will require the use of a combination of conservation tools to achieve the 30×30 goal, this report focuses on tools available to federal agencies, presidential administrations, and Congress versus state and local tools. For more information about how Western states are contributing to the 30×30 goal, please check out CWP’s Western Road to 30 website, which includes information about the conservation benefits and potential of voluntary private land conservation, state trust lands, and others.

Even though the 30×30 goal also applies to protecting ocean areas, the scope of this report primarily covers terrestrial conservation tools and mechanisms and does not cover national marine sanctuaries. It does include some freshwater protections and examples, such as wild and scenic rivers, and national recreation areas. 

Similarly, while there are examples of Tribally-managed parks and monuments, Tribal land management tools are not specifically highlighted in this report. However, it is critical to acknowledge that all public lands exist on land that was historically occupied by Native Americans and taken by force by the U.S. government. In recent years, examples of co-management partnerships with Tribal nations are emerging that aim to restore traditional stewardship, account for traditional knowledge in management decisions, guarantee Tribes access to their cultural lands, and successfully manage important areas for conservation and biodiversity. In addition, studies have found that lands and waters overseen by Indigenous peoples and local communities are less likely to be degraded by human activities.

It’s important to acknowledge that not all conservation tools and mechanisms provide an equal level of conservation benefit—some designation types provide more stringent levels of protection than others, like congressionally-designated wilderness areas, which prohibit motorized access and extractive activities. Many of the most stringent categories of protection fall into what are known as GAP 1 or 2 status, the most protective categories for conserving biodiversity, achieved through management plans that stipulate permanent protection from extractive uses on the landscape. While it is necessary to include the highest possible standard for achieving conservation benefits, this report highlights a broader spectrum of the federal tools available for achieving conservation benefits, not exclusively the most protective.  

In addition, the report notes that multiple levels and types of conservation can occur within a particular designated area, and sometimes alongside other activities. For example, national forests are intended to accommodate a multitude of activities, including mining, mineral development, timber harvest, and outdoor recreation, though they can also include wilderness or roadless areas. 

ACECAreas of Critical Environmental Concern
BLMBureau of Land Management
DoDDepartment of Defense
DOIDepartment of the Interior
ESAEndangered Species Act
FLPMAFederal Land Policy & Management Act
FWS/USFWSU.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
IRAInventoried Roadless Area
INRMPIntegrated Natural Resource Management Plans
LWCFLand and Water Conservation Fund
NCANational Conservation Area
NEPANational Environmental Policy Act
NPSNational Park Service
NRANational Recreation Area
NWRNational Wildlife Refuge
USACEU.S. Army Corps of Engineers
USDAU.S. Department of Agriculture
USFSU.S. Forest Service
WSAWilderness Study Area

The Big Three

National Parks

What are national parks?

President Woodrow Wilson signed the act creating the National Park Service (NPS) on August 25, 1916. The Organic Act states that the Park Service “shall promote and regulate the use of the Federal areas known as national parks, monuments and reservations […] which purpose is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

The National Park System now comprises more than 400 areas covering more than 84 million acres in 50 states, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, Saipan, and the Virgin Islands. National parks can protect landscapes as well as landmarks and historic sites. The system includes several distinct designation types of national park units, including national parks, national preserves, national monuments, national memorials, national historic sites, national seashores, and national battlefield parks.

Some national park sites can be co-managed with a Tribal nation. Canyon de Chelly National Monument is co-managed by the NPS and the Navajo Nation, and its boundaries exist entirely within the Navajo Nation. The monument was originally established by President Herbert Hoover in 1931 to protect the history and objects reflective of more than 4,000 years of human occupation of the region. The monument encompasses approximately 84,000 acres of land with roughly 40 families residing within the park boundaries.

How are national parks established?

National parks can only be created by Congress and all are managed by the NPS. National monuments can also be managed by the NPS, and areas originally designated as national monuments through the Antiquities Act can become parks through legislation, like Grand Canyon, Zion, Saguaro, and Badlands national parks.

The secretary of the Interior provides Congress with recommendations on proposed additions to the National Park System. The secretary is counseled by the National Park System Advisory Board, composed of private citizens, which advises on possible additions to the System and policies for its management.

How permanent and protective are national parks?

National park designations are permanent—only the passage of a new law can revoke a national park designation. Since 1895, 26 sites have been removed from the National Park System. Many areas managed by the NPS are intended to provide a high level of protection for the scenic, natural, or historical sites within their boundaries to maintain those areas in a protected or natural state for the enjoyment of future generations. However, the level of protection may vary depending on the type of designation. For example, some activities, like livestock grazing, may be permitted in a national monument, but not a national park.

How do national parks interact with other types of protection?

National parks may include congressionally-designated wilderness areas and may sit adjacent to other federally managed land. Thoughtfully defined management protocols across federal agencies can ensure cohesive and coordinated management of a landscape or ecosystem across jurisdictional boundaries. For example, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem encompasses state lands for Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho, as well as two national parks (Yellowstone and Grand Teton), portions of five national forests, three national wildlife refuges, BLM holdings, private, and Tribal lands. The area is one of the largest nearly-intact temperate ecosystems on Earth and is managed by the combined efforts of state governments, the federal government, Tribal governments, and private landowners.


Yellowstone National Park, Montana/Wyoming/Idaho

Established in 1872 as the country’s first national park, Yellowstone National Park is famous for its unique hydrothermal and geologic features, like the Old Faithful Geyser, as well as its expansive and untrammeled ecosystem that allows for the migration and natural behavior of many endemic species, including wolves and bison.

Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, Alaska

Located north of the Arctic Circle in Alaska’s Brooks Range at the northernmost tip of the Rocky Mountains, Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve contains six wild and scenic rivers and the second-largest NPS-managed wilderness area. No trails, signs, or facilities exist within the park, and it is known for its remoteness. Though the landscape appears virtually untouched by contemporary civilization, people have lived there for at least 12,000 years, and the park is blanketed with numerous archaeological and historic sites. 

Saguaro National Park, Arizona 

Even though the saguaro cactus is considered a universal symbol of the American West, these long-lived cacti are only found in the Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona near the city of Tucson. There are two units that comprise Saguaro National Park, East and West, both containing animals and plant species that have adapted to the extreme heat, high elevation, cool nighttime temperatures, and flooding events that characterize this fragile and biodiverse ecosystem. The area was originally designated as a national monument by President Herbert Hoover in 1933 and was elevated by Congress to a national park in 1994.

National Monuments

What are national monuments?

National monuments are nationally significant lands, waters, historic, or cultural sites that have been set aside for permanent protection by Congress through legislation or by a U.S. president through the use of the Antiquities Act. The Antiquities Act grants a sitting president the authority to permanently protect places with scientific or historical importance, including iconic American symbols like the Statue of Liberty and natural landscapes like the Grand Canyon. Since 1906, 18 presidents have used the Antiquities Act to designate national monuments across the country. There are currently over 160 national monuments that are primarily managed by the National Park Service, the Forest Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

In addition to protecting large landscapes and natural areas, national monuments can also be a tool to honor and acknowledge events and historical sites that represent our shared American heritage. Some examples of cultural monuments include the Stonewall National Monument in New York, which was established to recognize the site of an uprising in the ongoing struggle for LGBTQ civil rights, and the Emmett Till & Mamie Till-Mobley National Monument, which was established to recognize the violent murder of teenager Emmett Till as a galvanizing event in the modern struggle for the civil rights of Black Americans.

How are national monuments established?

National monuments can be established by Congress or by presidential proclamation. National monuments can only be established on land that is already managed by a federal agency. Once established, a national monument can be managed by an individual federal agency or jointly with another agency. There are processes underway at some national monuments, like Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, to develop a framework for collaborative co-management with Tribal nations.

How permanent and protective are national monuments?

National monuments provide permanent protection, though they can be converted to a national park through legislation. Despite recent attempts during the Trump administration to reduce the size of national monuments, legal scholars agree that only a new law can remove or shrink a national monument established by presidential proclamation. For example, Bears Ears National Monument in Utah was originally established by President Barack Obama in 2016 using the Antiquities Act. In 2017, President Donald Trump attempted to reduce the size of the monument by 85 percent, causing litigation and public outcry. In 2021, President Joe Biden restored the original boundaries of the monument, cutting short the lawsuits challenging Trump’s attempt to shrink the monument.

How do national monuments interact with other types of protection?

National monuments protect “valid existing rights,” which include the continuation of many rights and activities that occurred prior to an area being designated a national monument. This could include previously-existing oil and gas leases, access to private property, valid mining claims, roads and utility infrastructure, and livestock grazing. Importantly, national monuments typically allow for a broad range of recreational activities, including camping and backpacking, hunting and fishing, horseback riding, riding motorized vehicles on designated roads, hiking, and biking.


Avi Kwa Ame National Monument, Nevada

Avi Kwa Ame National Monument in Nevada was established by President Biden in March 2023. The monument spans approximately 500,000 acres of lands managed by the BLM, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the NPS. The designation provides greater protection of sacred space for spiritual uses, including Spirit Mountain, which is central to the creation story of many Tribal nations, while ensuring continued access to hunting, camping, hiking, off-road vehicle use, photography and other recreational activities. Hunting, trapping, wildlife watching, aerial surveys, wildlife infrastructure installation and maintenance, and a wide range of other wildlife management activities will continue to be allowed within the national monument.

Browns Canyon National Monument, Colorado

Using the Antiquities Act, President Barack Obama designated Browns Canyon National Monument in 2015 to protect over 21,000 acres of pristine canyons, rivers and backcountry forest near Salida, Colorado. The monument contains national forests as well as BLM-managed lands and is jointly managed by both agencies. The Arkansas River flows through the monument, attracting whitewater rafters and anglers. The monument provides clean water, habitat for wildlife, outdoor recreation opportunities, and scenic beauty, and allows livestock grazing and other permitted uses. Some of Colorado’s most iconic species rely on the area for their survival, including bighorn sheep, elk, mule deer, black bears, bobcats, mountain lions, coyotes, foxes, and pine martens. The region holds cultural and historical significance for the Ute and Jicarilla Apache.

Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve, Idaho

President Calvin Coolidge designated the Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve in 1924. The history of human occupation of the area for the Shoshone-Bannock people begins long before recorded history, though the region has factored into several notable historic events since then including the Lewis and Clark Expedition and the training of National Aeronautics and Space Administration astronauts for their visit to the moon. Congress created the Craters of the Moon Wilderness in 1970, one of the first wilderness areas to be managed by the NPS, and in 2000 the monument was expanded to incorporate BLM lands and a cooperative management agreement between NPS and BLM was put in place. In 2017, the area was designated an International Dark Sky Park.

National Wildlife Refuges

What is a national wildlife refuge?

National Wildlife Refuges are areas of land and water managed by the Fish and Wildlife Service  for the protection of fish, wildlife, and plant resources and their habitats. Refuges are established to conserve native species, as well as offer abundant opportunities for outdoor recreation. They also improve air quality, reduce the risk of wildfire, and preserve cultural values.

How are wildlife refuges established?

The National Wildlife Refuge System was originally established in 1903 by President Theodore Roosevelt when he designated Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. Under the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act of 1966, new wildlife refuges can be created and existing refuges may be expanded through executive action, secretarial order, or by Congress. This means the president may create or expand national wildlife refuges, as may the secretary of the Interior or Congress through the passage of legislation.

How permanent and protective are wildlife refuges?

National wildlife refuges are permanent unless otherwise amended by an act of Congress. The secretary of the Interior also has the authority to transfer or remove wildlife refuge lands with the approval of the Migratory Bird Conservation Commission. The secretary of the Interior is required to determine compatible wildlife-dependent recreation opportunities such as hunting, fishing, and wildlife observation on national wildlife refuges, as long as the activity doesn’t interfere with the original mission of the wildlife refuge—at the very least, to conserve native species dependent on the landscape. In general, new oil and gas leasing isn’t allowed in wildlife refuges, barring one exception involving drilling on private land adjacent to a refuge.

How do wildlife refuges interact with other types of protections?

National wildlife refuges are part of the National Wildlife Refuge System, which includes national wildlife refuges, wetland management districts, and marine national monuments. All three units within the system are managed by the Fish and Wildlife Service. Wilderness areas are also commonly located within refuges—63 of the U.S.’s 568 wildlife refuges contain designated wilderness areas.


Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge, Florida

First gaining recognition in 1881 as a small island unusually abundant with birds, Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge contains over 5,400 acres of wildlife habitat. It is designated as a national historic landmark and a wetland of international importance, and contains Pelican Island Wilderness. Designated by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903, it is the first designated wildlife refuge in the U.S.

Desert National Wildlife Refuge, Nevada

North of Las Vegas, Nevada, Desert National Wildlife Refuge spans a stunning 1.6 million acres, making it the largest wildlife refuge in the lower 48 states. The wildlife refuge was originally established in 1936 to protect habitat for desert bighorn sheep, the state animal of Nevada, and it encompasses six major mountain ranges. The refuge is so large, in fact, that there are three separate wildlife refuges within Desert National Wildlife Refuge—Ash Meadows, Pahranagat, and Moapa Valley. The expansive area is a popular destination for a wide variety of recreational activities, including camping, hiking, off-roading, and hunting.

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia and Florida

In southern Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp, the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge protects more than 600 plant species and several endangered animals like the red-cockaded woodpecker, eastern indigo snake, and wood stork. The refuge also has more than 350,000 acres of wilderness within its boundaries and is world renowned for its diverse and plentiful amphibians. Visitors can enjoy an abundance of recreation opportunities, including canoeing along the waters of the refuge.

Into the Wild


What is wilderness?

Wilderness areas are the most protected public lands in the U.S., with 803 wilderness areas covering nearly 112 million acres. Managed with the intention of allowing lands to remain unharmed by development, wilderness areas protect wildlife habitats, provide sources of clean water, and provide abundant opportunities for solitude and non-motorized recreation.

How is wilderness established?

Since the Wilderness Act of 1964 was enacted, Congress has had the ability to designate wilderness areas. In order for an area to be considered for wilderness designation, the area must include at least 5,000 acres of public lands (or of sufficient size to make its preservation practical), be affected primarily by forces of nature with unnoticeable human intervention, and provide outstanding opportunities for solitude or recreation. If these criteria are met, Congress may enact legislation to add the proposed area to the National Wilderness Preservation System, and the president can subsequently sign it into law.

How permanent and protective is wilderness?

Designated wilderness areas receive the federal government’s highest level of land protection— they are protected from development of all types and managed for biodiversity conservation. More specifically, the Wilderness Act prohibits commercial activities, motorized access, and the construction of roads, structures, and facilities in wilderness areas.

There has never been a wholesale removal of a wilderness area from the National Wilderness Preservation System, but land swaps and boundary adjustments have historically occurred through acts of Congress. The Wilderness Act includes language allowing some forms of development, including reservoirs and transmission lines. In cases where development is deemed necessary, Congress has removed land from wilderness areas, in most cases adjusting boundaries to add an equal or greater number of acres to the same wilderness or to a wilderness nearby.

How do wilderness areas interact with other types of protections?

Wilderness areas bolster protections for federal land administered by four federal land management agencies—the Forest Service, the National Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Land Management. Specifically, wilderness areas are found in national forests, national parks, national wildlife refuges, and on BLM lands.


Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Minnesota

Part of the Superior National Forest, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota is the most visited wilderness area in the United States. With over 2,000 backcountry campsites, many of which are accessible only by canoe, the Boundary Waters offers expansive solitude on its 1,200 miles of canoe routes. The Superior National Forest has been threatened by nickel and copper mining for decades, but in January 2023, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland signed a Public Land Order withdrawing approximately 225,5000 acres in the national forest from mineral and geothermal leasing for a 20-year period. The mineral withdrawal, a type of protection described later in this report, includes the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, Colorado

Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness spans the White River and Gunnison national forests, and was one of five areas in Colorado designated as wilderness in the original Wilderness Act of 1964. The wilderness area surrounds the Maroon Bells Scenic Area, an extremely popular area near the photographic, mountain-reflecting Maroon Lake. The wilderness area contains six of Colorado’s legendary “fourteeners” (mountains that exceed 14,000 feet of elevation), as well as a collection of natural hot springs. Over time, and with ever increasing visitation to the area, the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness has become a poster child for the danger of loving our treasured public lands to death. The high visitation to the sensitive alpine ecosystem and the impact on nearby communities prompted the initiation of a study in 2022 to assess and determine sustainable visitor access and provide recommendations for updating the management plan for the area.

Bob Marshall Wilderness, Montana

The Bob Marshall Wilderness was designated by Congress in 1964 and now consists of over one million acres in northwestern Montana. The Bob Marshall Wilderness is just one part of the larger Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, an area of more than 1.5 million acres that includes three wilderness areas: The Bob Marshall, Great Bear, and Scapegoat wilderness areas. The wilderness complex is the third largest in the lower 48 states, and the contiguous landscape provides 1,700 miles of trails for recreationists of all skill levels.

Wilderness Study Areas

What are wilderness study areas?

Wilderness study areas (WSAs) are lands that demonstrate the presence of wilderness characteristics—that is, they remain unharmed by human development and permanent habitation. Under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA), the Bureau of Land Management is required to inventory and study all lands for wilderness characteristics. The Forest Service also manages some WSAs.

How are WSAs established?

Most WSAs (83 percent) are designated under Section 603 of FLPMA, which states that the secretary of the Interior must review all roadless areas spanning over 5,000 acres on which the BLM has identified wilderness characteristics through required land and resource inventories. In order to be considered a WSA, the land must meet the same requirements for designation as a wilderness area, which include an area at least 5,000 acres in size that is affected primarily by forces of nature and not permanent human development like roads and other infrastructure and provides outstanding opportunities for solitude or recreation. 

Other WSAs (16 percent) have been established under Section 202 of FLPMA, which requires the BLM to develop, maintain, and revise land use plans for public lands. Under Section 202, BLM may issue management decisions which may be changed or terminated. BLM has used its authority under FLPMA to designate Section 202 WSAs. As a result of a decades-old settlement involving former Interior Secretary Gale Norton, no new Section 202 WSAs have been designated since 2003. Seven U.S. senators wrote to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland in January and October of 2022 asking Interior to resume Section 202 WSA designations.

How permanent and protective are WSAs?

WSAs are permanent until Congress determines otherwise. During land and resource inventories, FLPMA requires the secretary of the Interior to manage WSAs in a manner so as to keep the landscape suitable for designation as wilderness. Typically, this means lands designated as WSAs are managed to limit high-impact activities like motorized vehicle use. The  BLM continues to manage WSAs in this manner until Congress makes the decision to designate the area as wilderness or release the landscape from study. As of 2020, there were 491 WSAs totaling over 11 million acres.

How do WSAs interact with other types of protections?

WSAs are very similar to wilderness in that they are both managed to keep lands natural and undeveloped. Many WSAs are later designated by Congress as wilderness. Similar to wilderness areas, WSAs can be found in other protected areas—they can exist in national forests, national parks, national wildlife refuges, and on BLM lands.


Handies Peak Wilderness Study Area, Colorado

Colorado’s Handies Peak WSA includes its namesake, Handies Peak, a mountain that reaches 14,048 feet elevation, the highest point of land managed by the BLM outside of Alaska. The 16,000-acre area also includes 12 peaks over 13,000 feet, three canyons, and three alpine lakes—lakes at high altitudes with extended periods of ice cover.

Sutton Mountain Wilderness Study Area, Oregon

Sutton Mountain WSA in central Oregon contains spectacular clay formations as well as Sutton Mountain, which rises 2,000 feet above the valley and has visible layers of ash and basalt. The entire WSA is over 28,000 acres, and the BLM continues to manage the land in a manner which maintains its suitability for a wilderness designation.


CRS Report: BLM WSAs in brief

Roadless Areas

What are roadless areas? 

The 2001 Roadless Rule established prohibitions on road construction, road reconstruction, and timber harvesting on 58.5 million acres of inventoried roadless areas (IRAs)—roughly one third of National Forest System lands. The intent of the 2001 Roadless Rule is to provide lasting protection for IRAs within the National Forest System, which could apply to specific portions of both national forests and national grasslands (see here for a map of IRAs in national forests and national grasslands by state). IRAs possess social and ecological values and characteristics that are becoming increasingly scarce as more natural landscapes are developed for other purposes. Roadless areas have many benefits for humans and wildlife, including some of the purest drinking water in the country, habitat for threatened or endangered species, and the opportunity for visitors to fish, hike, camp, and ski. 

How are roadless areas established?

In 1999, President Bill Clinton instructed the Forest Service to develop and propose regulations to provide appropriate long-term protection for IRAs. President Clinton stated, “In the final regulations, the nature and degree of protection afforded should reflect the best available science and a careful consideration of the full range of ecological, economic, and social values inherent in these lands.” 

How permanent and protective are roadless areas?

Roadless areas are permanent in that they don’t expire but they can be repealed through an agency rulemaking process. There have been recent examples when the status of a roadless area has been repealed through a replacement rulemaking (see Tongass National Forest example below). Once established, roadless areas can provide a high degree of protection, similar to a wilderness designation given how it limits development and other high-impact activities on the landscape. 

How do roadless areas interact with other types of protection?

The intent of roadless areas is to exist within the context of the Forest Service’s multiple-use management protocols that allow for activities such as outdoor recreation, timber harvest, and livestock grazing. In practice, this means that the designation of a roadless area will not apply to an entire national forest, only to specific areas, allowing the Forest Service’s multiple-use activities (including logging) to occur outside of the IRA. It is worth noting that by definition, congressionally-designated wilderness areas are roadless, too. For example, the Bitterroot National Forest, which traverses the border of west central Montana and east central Idaho, contains the largest expanse of continuous wilderness in the lower 48 states, made up of the Selway Bitterroot, Frank Church River of No Return, and the Anaconda Pintler wilderness areas. 


Tongass National Forest, Alaska

In 2020, the Trump administration completed a rule to remove roadless area protections for the Tongass National Forest in Alaska, the world’s largest intact temperate rainforest. In January 2023, the Biden administration repealed the 2020 Alaska Roadless Rule and restored long standing roadless protections to more than 9 million acres of roadless areas in the Tongass National Forest that support the ecological, economic, and cultural values of southeastern Alaska.

Utah Roadless Areas

The state of Utah has more than 4 million acres of inventoried roadless areas, accounting for nearly half of the total acreage of national forests in the state (approximately 8.1 million acres). In the original analysis during President Bill Clinton’s administration that led to the assessment of IRAs, the data collected for Utah suggested that the establishment of over 4 million acres of roadless areas would reduce timber harvest from national forests by 11.2 million board feet per year. The AshleyManti-La SalSawtooth, and Wasatch-Cache national forests contain IRAs that do not allow road construction or reconstruction, and the Caribou and Sawtooth national forests contain IRAs recommended for wilderness protection.

Oregon Roadless Areas

The state of Oregon contains more than 15 million acres of National Forest System lands, but only 1.9 million acres are IRAs. Of the 14 national forests in Oregon, all contain some IRAs where road construction is not allowed, with the exception of the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, where there are IRAs in which some road construction or reconstruction is allowed. The estimated reduction in annual timber harvest for Oregon’s IRAs is just 6 percent.

Recreation & Conservation

National Conservation Areas

What are national conservation areas?

National conservation areas (NCAs) are part of the BLM’s National Conservation Lands System. NCAs are designated to protect exceptional scientific or scenic natural values, or unique cultural, historical, and recreational features on public lands. There are often increased land management planning requirements for NCAs beyond “garden variety” BLM-managed lands. The BLM currently manages 20 NCAs across the country.

How are NCAs established?

NCAs are established by Congress and can differ in type of landscape and size. Congressional NCA designations are often the result of local, grassroots organizing and coalition building. The designations often outline which activities are and aren’t allowed within the NCA and direct the Interior department to develop management plans for the NCA based on broad guidelines.  Congress can also designate other areas similar to NCAs under four categories: cooperative management and protection areas, outstanding natural areas, forest reserves, and national scenic areas. These public lands are managed similarly to NCAs and also offer exceptional natural and cultural values. 

How permanent and protective are NCAs?

NCAs provide permanent protection and can limit or prohibit activities like mining, drilling, grazing, motorized recreation, and hunting in order to protect the resources therein. However, there can be significant variation in which activities are allowed across NCAs as well as within individual NCAs. Modern legislation creating NCAs generally includes mineral withdrawals that ban new mining claims and oil and gas leasing. Mining claims and leases that exist at the time the NCA is created remain valid. 

How do NCAs interact with other types of protection?

NCAs are often established near other protected areas, such as monuments and parks. Higher levels of protection, such as wilderness areas and WSAs, can exist within an NCA.


King Range National Conservation Area, California

The King Range NCA is the nation’s first NCA. Designated in 1970, it encompasses 68,000 acres along 35 miles of California’s North Coast, a landscape that was considered too rugged for highway building, giving the remote region the title of California’s Lost Coast. Two highlights of this stunningly beautiful area are the world class mountain bike trails and nearly 43,000 acres of coastal wilderness. The legislation creating Kings Range NCA is very permissive in terms of compatible activities, including mining, drilling, and grazing. 

Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, Nevada

The first national conservation area in Nevada, Red Rock Canyon is located 17 miles west of the Las Vegas Strip. The NCA is known for its spectacular desert landscape, as well as excellent rock climbing and hiking opportunities. According to the BLM, the area is visited by more than two million people each year. Legislation introduced and supported by the Nevada congressional delegation in 1990 changed the status of the Red Rock Recreation Lands to a National Conservation Area to provide funding to protect and improve the area. The legislation creating this NCA bans new mining claims, mineral and geothermal leasing.

Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey NCA, Idaho

The BLM’s mission at the Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area in Idaho is primarily to preserve habitat for the greatest concentration of nesting birds of prey in North America. The BLM estimates 800 pairs of hawks, owls, eagles, and falcons migrate to the region each spring to mate and raise their young. The high cliffs rising from the banks of the Snake River below provide countless ledges, cracks, and crevices for nesting raptors. From their cliffside nests up to 700 feet above the river, these birds can soar on warm air currents rising from the canyon floor. Congress established the NCA in 1993, and in 2009 it was renamed to honor Morley Nelson, a longtime advocate for birds of prey who dedicated his life to protecting the area. The legislation creating this NCA bans new mining claims, mineral and geothermal leasing. 

National Recreation Areas

What are national recreation areas?

National recreation areas (NRAs) are sites with significant natural and scenic resources that prioritize recreational opportunities. They allow a wider range of activities than a national park or national monument, but still establish some restrictions in order to protect natural resources of the area. They may be managed by the Forest Service, National Park Service, or Bureau of Land Management, and at times in partnership with the Bureau of Reclamation.

How are national recreation areas established?

National recreation areas are established through an act of Congress in accordance with a 1963 policy created by the Recreation Advisory Council. The policy outlines seven mandatory criteria and six secondary criteria for establishing NRAs, including a minimum size and the ability to attract visitors from nearby communities to fill a regional need for recreation. Prior to this policy, NRAs were an informal designation established through interagency agreements in order to balance recreation and tourism with other uses of the land. The 1963 policy standardized the process and allowed for more informed and consistent management practices.

How permanent and protective are national recreation areas?

NRAs are a permanent designation and offer a moderate level of protection, which depends on the management practices for each specific area. In general, NRAs prioritize recreation over conservation. Limited use of the land for grazing, logging, mining, or oil and gas leasing may be permitted on a case-by-case basis if it does not interfere with recreational use of the land and it will have no significant adverse impacts on natural, scenic, and cultural resources. There is precedent for an NRA gaining additional protection through redesignation as a national park when Cuyahoga Valley National Park was established in Ohio in 2000. An NRA could only lose its protective status through an act of Congress.

How do national recreation areas interact with other types of protection?

NRAs overlap with other types of protection in several ways. NRAs managed by the NPS are standalone units, but NRAs managed by the USFS are usually considered part of the broader National Forest System and can therefore include and account for any USFS management plans that are in place in that area. Eleven NRAs are built around Bureau of Reclamation (BOR)-operated dams, and are therefore managed in collaboration with BOR’s operation of the reservoir. They are also sometimes established near or adjacent to areas with stronger conservation statuses in order to balance the need for recreation and conservation in a broad region.


Lake Mead NRA, Arizona/Nevada

Lake Mead was the first NRA to be established and remains the largest at nearly 1.5 million acres. It was established after the completion of Hoover Dam in 1936. The Department of the Interior recognized the need to manage the wave of visitors to the newly formed reservoir and to offer facilities and services for recreation. The BOR, which owns and operates the dam, signed an agreement with the NPS to manage the area for recreation. The area did not meet the standards for a national park or monument since it was a disturbed area with multiple uses including operation of the dam, as well as livestock grazing and mining, but the NPS agreed to manage the land and water for recreation purposes. This agreement became the basis of the NRA designation.

Mount Hood NRA, Oregon

Mount Hood National Recreation Area in Oregon is the newest NRA, designated in 2009 through the Omnibus Public Land Management Act. The nearly 35,000-acre NRA sits within Mount Hood National Forest and is managed by the USFS. It is comprised of three non-contiguous areas surrounding Mount Hood. The designation came alongside the creation of new and expanded wilderness areas around Mount Hood. The recreation area offers a compromise for the creation of the new wilderness areas, where all extractive activity is off limits, by creating an area that allows for some timber harvest and more recreation opportunities than a wilderness area, namely mountain biking.

Glen Canyon NRA, Utah/Arizona

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, established in 1972, surrounds Lake Powell and the Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River between Utah and Arizona. It encompasses over 1.2 million acres and also includes Rainbow Bridge National Monument, a natural stone bridge considered sacred by several Tribes in the area. It also borders Capitol Reef National Park and Canyonlands National Park to the north, Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument to the west, and Vermilion Cliffs National Monument and Grand Canyon National Park to the southwest, making it a piece of a large and critical conservation landscape in the southwest.

Wild and Scenic Rivers

What are wild and scenic rivers?

Wild and scenic rivers (WSRs) are the strongest form of protection for free-flowing rivers and streams. The designation was created by Congress in 1968 to preserve certain rivers with “outstandingly remarkable scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic, cultural, or other similar values…for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations.” There are three classifications within the National Wild & Scenic River System: wild river areas, which are the least impacted by humans and are remote and only accessible by trail; scenic river areas, which have few human impacts but are accessible by road; and recreational river areas, which are readily accessible by road and may have some development and past human impact to the flow of the river. WSRs may be managed by the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, or in one instance the Army Corps of Engineers. As of 2022, over 13,000 miles of 228 rivers in 41 states and Puerto Rico were designated as WSRs.

How are wild and scenic rivers established? 

National wild and scenic rivers can be designated in two ways. Most often, WSRs are designated by Congress, which can initiate a study period, followed by an agency recommendation, and then congressional approval. Less commonly, WSRs can be designated by the request of a state governor, as described in Section 2 of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1969. In this process, the river usually needs to first be designated as wild, scenic, or recreational at the state level, if there is a state rivers program. Then the river needs to meet all the eligibility requirements for a national WSR, possess one or more “outstandingly remarkable values,” and meet several additional criteria. If those criteria are met, the secretary of the Interior has the authority to designate the river as a WSR. After designation by either method, the lead agency, along with local and state entities, will implement a comprehensive river management plan.

How permanent and protective are wild and scenic rivers?

WSR designations are considered permanent protection for the river and shoreline. The designation prohibits federal support for dam construction or activities that would inhibit a river’s free-flowing condition, water quality, or other resources. Protections typically apply to a one-quarter mile buffer surrounding the river itself. The designation dictates that the lead agency work with volunteers, local organizations, and state and federal agencies to steward the river’s resources and manage it through federal, state, local, or Tribal regulations and programs. Rivers classified as “wild river areas” (the most protective classification) are withdrawn from mining and mineral leasing. Existing claims may remain in effect, but activities can be regulated to minimize impact. Regardless of the classification, the designation does not affect existing water rights and does not limit recreation, agriculture, or residential development in the broader area. 

How do wild and scenic rivers interact with other types of protection?

WSRs can be paired with nearly any other type of protection, and a WSR may flow through areas with different designations and levels of protection. WSRs managed by the BLM are considered part of the National Conservation Lands system and their management may overlap with state-level wild and scenic river programs.


Flathead River, Montana

The Flathead River in northwest Montana is 219 miles of free-flowing water that runs from the Canadian border, past Glacier National Park, through Flathead National Forest, and into the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Various segments of the river are classified as wild, scenic, and recreational. It supports a diverse community of native plants, wildlife such as grizzly bears and peregrine falcons, and is home to native fishes, such as bull trout (listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act) and westslope cutthroat trout (a state of Montana species of special concern). The Flathead River was designated a wild and scenic river in 1976 and is managed by the Forest Service and the National Park Service via Glacier National Park.   

The Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River, New Mexico

The Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River in New Mexico is located within Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, through which it flows for 74 miles. This segment of the Rio Grande was among the first eight rivers designated as WSRs in 1968. It supports a wide variety of wildlife including bighorn sheep, river otter, and cutthroat trout, and is a popular destination of hikers, anglers, and whitewater boaters. Another 191 miles of the Rio Grande are federally designated as scenic in Texas, including a segment within Big Bend National Park. The river is managed by the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service.

National Trails

What are national trails?

National trails are designated “to promote the preservation of, public access to, travel within, and enjoyment and appreciation of the open-air, outdoor areas and historic resources of the Nation,” as written in the National Trails System Act. They may be managed by the National Park Service, Forest Service, or Bureau of Land Management, typically in partnership with state and local governments, land trusts, private landowners, and local trail advocacy groups to maintain the trails and facilities. National trails fall into four categories: 

  • National scenic trails, which are long-distance routes for outdoor recreation within protected corridors
  • National historic trails, which follow original trails or travel routes of national historic significance
  • National recreation trails, existing local or regional trails that contribute to the recreational and conservation goals
  • Connecting and side trails, which provide access to the trail system. 

In 2009, a national geologic trail was established by the Omnibus Public Land Management Act, though this is not an official category per the National Trails System Act. The National Trails System covers around 90,000 miles, consisting of 11 national scenic trails, 21 national historic trails, nearly 1,300 national recreation trails, seven connecting and side trails, and one national geologic trail.

How are National Trails established? 

National scenic and historic trails, which are typically long-distance trail routes, can only be established through an act of Congress. National recreation trails and connecting and side trails can be designated by the secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture with the consent of the federal agency, state or local government, or other landowners. Once a national trail is established, the secretary of the Interior or Agriculture can approve the acquisition of lands and access rights for the trail.

How permanent and protective are national trails?

National trails are considered a permanent status, though their management is more centered on maintaining the trail for recreation and access than for natural resource conservation. The designation does not add protections for surrounding public lands, though it does allow for coordinated management of trail systems, including visitor management, education, trail maintenance, and monitoring and research, which are beneficial to not only the trail, but also the broader landscape. 

How do national trails interact with other types of protection?

National trails can run through lands with any level of protection, including wilderness, national parks and monuments, mineral withdrawals, resource management plans, and more.


Continental Divide Trail, New Mexico to Montana

The Continental Divide Trail, a national scenic trail, is one of five trails added to the system as part of the National Parks and Recreational Land Act of 1978. With elevations ranging from 4,000 to 14,000 feet, the trail stretches over 3,100 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border in New Mexico, through the Rocky Mountains, to the U.S.-Canada border in Montana. It is considered one of the “Triple Crown” trails (along with the Appalachian and Pacific Crest trails) for long-distance thru hikers. When it was established in 1978, no direct funding for planning or construction was provided and progress was slow to establish a comprehensive management plan and actually build the trail. The creation of the Continental Divide Trail Alliance in 1999 (later replaced by the Continental Divide Trail Coalition) to coordinate regional partners in constructing and maintaining the trail helped speed progress tremendously, and approximately 96 percent of the trail is now complete.

Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, Pennsylvania to Oregon

The Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail spans nearly 4,900 miles from Pittsburgh to the Pacific Ocean in Oregon. It follows the historic routes of the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1803-1806 with the purpose of educating and commemorating the significance of the expedition in U.S. history and on Tribal lands. Given its educational mission, the trail is primarily managed by the National Park Service, but some sites along the trail are managed by other federal agencies, state, local, or Tribal governments, and private organizations. It was one of the first national historic trails, established in 1978 when the National Trails System Act of 1968 was amended to add the historic trail category. About 1,200 miles of trail were added to it in 2019 through the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act.

Guadalupe Ridge Trail, Texas/New Mexico

The Guadalupe Ridge Trail is an example of a national recreation trail, an already-established trail managed by federal, state, or local entities that the secretary of Interior added to the National Trail System without an act of Congress. Primarily managed by the National Park Service, the 100-mile trail runs from Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas, through Lincoln National Forest in New Mexico and ends in Carlsbad Caverns National Park. The trail was designated in 2019 by then-Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke alongside 18 other national recreation trails.


Map and GIS data: National Trail System

Multiple Use at Work

National Forests/Forest Management Plans

What are national forests?

The National Forest System (NFS) is managed by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), an agency within the Department of Agriculture. It includes 193 million total acres across 154 national forests and 20 national grasslands. It was originally established to improve and protect federal forests and watersheds and to provide a source of timber. The statutory mission of USFS today is to provide a variety of uses and values without impairing the productivity of the land, including mineral and energy development, livestock grazing, timber production, watershed protection, and for natural, scenic, scientific, and historical values, including wilderness preservation and outdoor recreation. 

New research has revealed that forested lands provide the cleanest and most stable water supply within the lower 48 states—over 99 percent of people who rely on public drinking water systems receive some of their drinking water from forested lands. While revenue generation is not a stated purpose of the NFS, it has authority to charge fees and collect revenue for various uses, including timber harvest, outdoor recreation, and grazing. Some national forests cover land within two different states, like the Pike San-Isabel National Forests and Cimarron and Comanche National Grasslands in Colorado and Kansas.

How are national forests established? 

The secretary of Agriculture has authority to add new lands to the NFS through acquisitions or land exchanges and can also dispose of land from the NFS for other purposes. The secretary can also establish new national forests from existing NFS lands and make “minor boundary adjustments.” Establishing a new national forest from lands that are not already managed as part of the NFS or significantly altering the boundaries of a national forest requires an act of Congress. Very little acreage has been added to the NFS since the 1980s. 

How permanent and protective are national forests?

National forests are permanently designated, though minor adjustments can be made to their size or boundaries by the secretary of Agriculture. The level of protection provided by a national forest designation varies given that logging is permitted in many national forests, as well as mining projects or oil and gas exploration. The USFS’s Minerals and Geology Management program interacts with the BLM and state agencies to manage minerals on NFS lands. Mineral commodities produced from national forests and grasslands include gold, silver, copper, platinum, palladium, lead and zinc, sand, gravel, decorative and building stone, along with coal, oil and gas, phosphates and geothermal resources. 

Some areas of national forests have a higher degree of protection than the overall forest through the designation of wilderness areas, WSAs or roadless areas. In addition, USFS has the authority to designate research natural areas (RNAs) through forest management plans that are permanently protected and maintained in a natural condition. RNAs can include unique ecosystems or ecological features, rare or sensitive species of plants and animals and their habitat, and/or high-quality examples of specific ecosystems. Given their natural condition, RNAs can serve as a baseline or reference area, providing a helpful ecosystem monitoring and management comparison tool. Currently, there are more than 500 RNAs established nationally. 

How do national forests interact with other types of protection?

The management of national forests is determined by comprehensive land and resource management plans for each NFS unit, also known as a forest management plan (FMP). These plans describe the desired resource conditions for the plan area and set a framework for associated land management and logging projects. Similarly, the Bureau of Indian Affairs has the authority to approve forest management plans for forested trust land. Each FMP describes the landowners’ goals, provides a resource assessment and map of the forest, and includes plans for how the forest is to be used, protected, and maintained. FMPs should be periodically reviewed and possibly revised to address changes in Tribal goals and objectives, forest management policy, or the state or condition of forest or timber resources. Portions of national forests can be incorporated into designated national monuments and managed in accordance with the monument’s management protocols.


White River National Forest, Colorado

The White River National Forest in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains is a world-renowned recreation destination home to iconic destinations such as the Maroon Bells and Hanging Lake, as well as 11 ski resorts, 10 mountain peaks over 14,000 feet, and eight wilderness areas. Covering nearly 2.3 million acres, the White River National Forest is the most heavily visited in the country and also contains prime habitat for numerous species of wildlife, including deer, elk, mountain lion bighorn sheep, mountain goat, bear, mountain lion, bobcat, lynx, moose, raptors, waterfowl, and trout. The White River Forest Management Plan allows for the sale of tens of millions of board feet of timber each year.

Custer Gallatin National Forest, Montana

The Custer Gallatin National Forest in southern Montana stretches over 500 miles from its westernmost boundary near the town of West Yellowstone to its easternmost boundaries in South Dakota. Its 3.2 million acres are critical to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. It contains six mountain ranges, and is one of the most ecologically, socially, economically, and culturally diverse landscapes in the region. It contains over a million acres of wilderness and is home to every species of North American big game animal except caribou. The blue-ribbon trout streams of the Madison, Gallatin and Yellowstone rivers flow through it. The 2022 management plan for the forest targets timber sales of ten million board feet each year.

Bridger-Teton National Forest, Wyoming

Wyoming’s Bridger-Teton National Forest contains over 3 million acres of public land and is adjacent to Grand-Teton National Park, Yellowstone National Park and the National Elk Refuge, helping to comprise a large part of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, the largest intact ecosystem in the lower 48 United States. The Bridger-Teton National Forest has three wilderness areas—the Bridger Wilderness, the Gros Ventre Wilderness and the Teton Wilderness—and boasts pristine watersheds, abundant wildlife, and immense wildlands. Although widely known for its large mammals, including grizzly bears, Bridger-Teton also supports more than 355 species of birds. The forest’s management plan aims to provide millions of board feet of timber each year.

BLM Lands/Resource Management Plans

What are resource management plans?

Resource management plans, or RMPs, lay out which Bureau of Land Management (BLM)-managed public lands are open for which uses, including recreation, drilling, and grazing. They are an essential tool for the responsible stewardship of public lands, and they provide an opportunity to identify and avoid land-use conflicts ahead of time, leading to better outcomes for wildlife, recreationists, ranchers, and industry.

How are RMPs established? 

The Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) requires each BLM field office to establish an RMP for the total land area it manages. RMPs are established by field offices through a process involving a full National Environmental Protection Act review including scoping, environmental analyses, and public comment and protest periods. RMPs can be adjusted and amended at any time. Full-scale revisions are supposed to occur every 15-20 years, but delays can and do happen, given the complexity and scope of the revision process. For example, the Moab Field Office RMP is 954 pages long and was overhauled in 2007 for the first time since 1985.

How permanent and protective are RMPs?

RMPs are relatively durable—designed to last for 15-20 years—and they have the potential to provide significant land protections. RMPs can create conservation designations, but they are not a designation in and of themselves. RMPs can establish areas of critical environmental concern, wilderness study areas (WSAs), special recreation management areas, extensive recreation management areas, wild and scenic river study areas, research natural areas, and special habitat designations, such as priority areas for conservation, priority habitat management areas, backcountry conservation areas, and general habitat management areas. RMPs can also limit where certain activities can occur, from motorized recreation and grazing to oil and gas leasing, as well as suggest lands for disposal or transfer. RMPs cannot establish wilderness areas or enact mineral withdrawals.

While RMPs can offer vast and meaningful protections to landscapes through the means listed above, new RMPs and RMP revisions can also take protections away. An example of this occurred under the Trump administration in 2019, when the BLM introduced revised RMPs for millions of acres across seven Western states that rolled back protections for greater sage-grouse habitat put in place by the Obama administration. The new RMPs opened millions of acres of land up to mining, drilling, and grazing. 

Section 202 of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act gives the BLM the authority to designate WSAs as part of the land planning process, but the BLM has issued no new Section 202 WSAs since 2003 as the result of a legal settlement involving former Interior Secretary Gale Norton. Seven U.S. senators wrote to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland in January and October of 2022 asking Interior to resume Section 202 WSA designations. 

How do RMPs interact with other types of protection?

RMPs are often used to implement other types of protection. As mentioned above, RMPs can establish areas of critical environmental concern (ACECs), designate lands to be managed to maintain wilderness characteristics, or establish WSAs, as well as suggest wild and scenic river designations. Additional layers of protection such as wilderness areas, national monuments, and national parks are all taken into account when RMPs are written.


Colorado River Valley and Grand Junction BLM field offices, Colorado

Recently proposed RMPs in the Colorado River Valley and Grand Junction field offices would close roughly 1.6 million acres to oil and gas leasing. The BLM was required to develop new RMPs for both field offices due to a lawsuit over a 2015 RMP for the Colorado River Valley Field Office. The field offices cover an area that stretches across seven Colorado counties. The proposed plan would close roughly 80 percent of the lands managed by the Colorado River Valley Field Office and Grand Junction Field Office to new oil leasing. The area that would be closed in the plan includes lands with low oil and gas potential, as well as areas that are striking for their wildlife, conservation, or wilderness values. The Colorado River Valley Field Office plan would also establish nine ACECs, including a nearly 25,000-acre area in the Colorado River Valley Field Office that is designed to protect the greater sage-grouse. The Grand Junction Field Office plan includes eight proposed ACECs, including one covering 27,000 acres to protect the Gunnison sage-grouse found only in portions of Colorado and Utah. There’s also a proposed 28,000-acre ACEC designed to protect rare plants, wildlife habitat, and scenic values.

Sage-grouse RMP revisions 

The BLM is currently considering amendments to more than 70 RMPs that guide conservation of greater sage-grouse sagebrush habitats on 67 million acres of BLM lands in California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming. The BLM is taking this action in light of continued declines in sage-grouse populations, new scientific developments, and the rapid effects of climate change, as well as to address issues identified through scoping, apply lessons learned from implementing 2015 RMPs aimed at protecting sage-grouse habitat, and address concerns raised in court rulings. The RMP revisions could involve the establishment of new ACECs, as well as other habitat management areas, such as priority areas for conservation, priority habitat management areas and general habitat management areas—all of which could help limit extraction and development in sage-grouse habitat.

Four Rivers Field Office RMP

The BLM recently completed a RMP for the Four Rivers Field Office in southwest Idaho. The RMP includes the creation of the Bennett Hills Backcountry Conservation Area (BCA), which covers over 120,000 acres of big game habitat. BCAs are a relatively new conservation designation for BLM-managed lands that emphasize the preservation of intact, undeveloped public lands that contain habitats for recreationally-important fish and wildlife species. The plan also designated roughly 36,000 acres as the Oxbow/Brownlee Extensive Recreation Management Area (ERMA). ERMAs guide the BLM to manage lands included therein to support and sustain recreational activities like off-roading, mountain biking, and climbing.

Areas of Critical Environmental Concern

What are areas of critical environmental concern?

Areas of critical environmental concern (ACECs) are areas where special management attention is needed to protect important historical, cultural, and scenic values, or fish and wildlife or other natural resources on BLM-managed lands. ACECs can also be designated to protect human life and safety from natural hazards. The activities allowed in ACECs depend on the values they are established to protect. For example, an ACEC established to protect rare or endangered plants would limit or disallow grazing. Similarly, an ACEC established to protect sage-grouse would limit or disallow grazing, drilling, mining, and other development. The Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) introduced the concept of ACECs and directed the BLM to prioritize the designation of ACECs in its development of resource management plans (RMPs). The BLM has designated around 20 million acres as ACECs since the passage of FLPMA in 1976. 

How are ACECs established? 

ACECs are primarily designated through the resource management planning process. The BLM can internally identify potential ACECs, and members of the public as well as other agencies can also nominate areas to be designated as ACECs during the development or revision of RMPs. To be considered for designation as an ACEC, the area must require special management attention to protect important values. If a nominated area meets the criteria, the BLM develops potential management options and incorporates the proposed ACEC into a draft land use plan. Members of the public have the opportunity to review and comment on the proposed ACEC and the potential management options. ACECs are designated in the final approved RMP. The proposed BLM Public Lands Rule would codify and clarify the process for establishing and managing an ACEC. 

How permanent and protective are ACECs?

ACECs are semi-permanent, as they can be altered through an RMP revision or overhaul. The BLM’s proposed Public Lands Rule would make it so that ACEC designations may be removed only when special management attention is no longer needed because the identified resources are being provided an equal or greater level of protection through alternate means, or the identified resources are no longer present. While there has been some progress, the BLM has never fulfilled its FLPMA obligation to develop a framework for how ACECs are managed across the agency—and, in practice, their management is inconsistent across BLM field offices. 

How do ACECs interact with other types of protection?

ACECs can overlap other special management areas such as wilderness, wilderness study areas, wild and scenic rivers, special recreation management areas, and more. However BLM guidance says that their management should be thought of independently of these areas. For example, BLM is supposed to manage an ACEC as if the wilderness study area (or other protective status) was not in place. The types of activities allowed within an ACEC depend on the resource and natural value the area is designated to protect. 


Nine Mile Canyon ACEC, Utah

The Nine Mile Canyon ACEC in Utah was established in 2008 as part of the Price Field Office RMP and encompasses approximately 26,000 acres. Nine Mile Canyon contains the country’s highest concentration of petroglyph panels, according to the BLM. The Nine Mile Canyon ACEC was nominated by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and the Utah Statewide Archaeological Society. The ACEC was established to protect the archaeological values in the canyon, as well as habitat for a variety of wildlife including Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep and golden eagles. Oil and gas leasing is allowed in the ACEC with a no surface occupancy stipulation, which means companies must use horizontal drilling to access subsurface minerals under the ACEC. Motorized recreation in the ACEC is limited to designated routes. Part of Nine Mile Canyon is also designated as a special recreation management area (SRMA). This designation overlaps with the ACEC, giving the BLM the ability to proactively manage recreation in the area as well as protect it.

Table Rocks ACEC, Oregon

The Table Rocks ACEC in Oregon was designated in 1984 and covers around 1,200 acres. It protects special plants, animal species, and unique geologic formations. The dwarf wooly meadowfoam wildflower grows nowhere else on Earth but on the top of the Table Rocks. Upper and Lower Table Rocks are two of the most prominent topographic features in Oregon’s Rogue River Valley. The Table Rocks are flat-topped buttes that rise approximately 800 feet above the north bank of the Rogue River. The Nature Conservancy (TNC) owns over 1,200 acres in the Table Rocks region. The BLM and TNC manage the area cooperatively. In 2011, the Confederated Tribes of the Grande Ronde, TNC, and the BLM signed a Memorandum of Understanding that includes the Tribes in future planning and management of the Table Rocks natural area, including the ACEC. Oil and gas leasing is allowed inside the ACEC with a no surface occupancy stipulation. Grazing is not allowed in the ACEC, and motorized access is limited to existing roads and trails. Part of the Table Rocks area is also designated as a SRMA, similar to Nine Mile Canyon in Utah.

Flora & Fauna

Critical Habitat/Endangered Species Act

What is critical habitat?

When a species is listed as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the federal government identifies geographic areas that are considered essential habitat for these species, known as critical habitat. Critical habitat can include areas that are required for the species’ normal behavior and population growth, including basic shelter, nutrition, and water requirements, as well as sites for breeding and raising offspring or of germination and seed dispersal. The critical habitat designation dictates how federal agencies manage these areas and where federally permitted activities can occur. 

How is critical habitat established? 

The Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), or National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for marine species, is charged with studying and identifying critical habitat areas for a species. This process can occur concurrently with a proposal to list a species under the ESA, or up to a year after the species is listed. Once the areas are identified, the FWS releases its findings and proposal for critical habitat areas for a public comment period. The proposed areas can be modified based on potential for economic impact, impact on national security, or any other relevant impact, unless failure to designate the area would lead to extinction of the species. After reviewing comments and making revisions, the FWS publishes a final rule that dictates the boundaries of critical habitat areas.

How permanent and protective are critical habitat designations?

Critical habitat is a temporary designation that only remains in effect while a species is listed as endangered or threatened. If a species is delisted, the critical habitat designation is lifted. Critical habitat areas are also susceptible to change based on the motivations of the current presidential administration, as was the case for the northern spotted owl in the example below. While in effect, critical habitat requires federal agencies to consult with the FWS if their actions may “destroy or adversely modify” critical habitat for listed species. While both public and private land can be designated as critical habitat, the designation only prevents activities that require a federal permit, license, or funding. 

How do critical habitat designations interact with other types of protection?   

Critical habitat may overlap with other protected areas, such as national parks, wildlife refuges, and wilderness areas. While critical habitat is a temporary designation, it may be used as a partial rationale for the designation of a more permanent and protective designation for an area. Critical habitat can also help guide monitoring and conservation efforts within designated areas such as national parks


Northern spotted owl, Washington/Oregon

The northern spotted owl, found in old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest, has been a symbol of conservation since the 1980s and 1990s, when environmentalists and the timber industry clashed over the owl’s listing as threatened through the ESA. The northern spotted owl faces threats from human-caused habitat destruction, often connected to logging, as well as competition with non-native species, primarily the barred owl. Along with its ESA listing in the 1990s, the northern spotted owl’s designated critical habitat, which restricts logging activity on federal lands, has been the subject of debate until present day. In 2007, under the George W. Bush administration, FWS proposed a new recovery plan for the northern spotted owl, which was highly criticized by environmental groups for weakening existing protections for the species and reducing its designated critical habitat by 23 percent. The plan faced a multitude of lawsuits, and President Barack Obama’s administration reversed the proposal in 2010, later nearly doubling the amount of critical habitat for the owl. Despite continued population declines, FWS under President Donald Trump’s administration announced it would reduce the owl’s critical habitat by 3.4 million acres in 2021, shortly before President Trump left office. Not long after, in November 2021, President Biden reversed this decision, announcing that FWS would maintain critical habitat designation on those 3.4 million acres. The northern spotted owl demonstrates the temporary nature of critical habitat designations, as well as its importance for conservation of certain species.

Tiehm’s buckwheat, Nevada

Tiehm’s buckwheat is a small flowering herbaceous plant that is found only within a small area of the Silver Peak Range in Esmeralda County, Nevada. It has been listed as endangered since December, 2022. Its primary threat is the lithium mining activity that is increasingly common in its small range. “You could wipe the buckwheat out with a bulldozer in a couple of hours. It’s that simple,” said botanist Arnold Tiehm, who first documented the species in 1983 and for whom it is named. The ESA listing prompted the designation of 910 acres of critical habitat for the plant, which lies directly in the path of mining company Ioneer’s planned Rhyolite Ridge lithium project. The company stated it would restrict activity to areas outside the critical habitat boundaries, but shortly after the ESA listing went into effect, the Bureau of Land Management issued a notice of trespass to Ioneer for conducting mining activities within the boundaries. Ioneer still plans to move forward with the project and says it will only conduct activity outside of the critical habitat area. Ioneer is also involved with an effort to transplant Tiehm’s buckwheat to new locations, though scientists and researchers are skeptical given the plant’s adaptations to its specific habitat.

California condor, California

The California condor, the largest North American land bird, is a critically endangered species  with over 600,000 acres of critical habitat currently designated in California. Historically, the condor was found across the U.S., but by the mid-20th century condor populations had dropped dramatically due to habitat disturbance, agricultural chemicals (DDT), lead poisoning, and poaching. In 1967 the California condor was listed as endangered, and in 1987 they were declared extinct in the wild and the 27 remaining birds were placed into a captive breeding program in an effort to save the species from extinction. Since then, the California Condor Recovery Program, managed by FWS, has worked to recover the population to self-sustaining levels. The program’s captive breeding, habitat protection through the designation of critical habitat, and advocacy to reduce the use of lead ammunition successfully restored the population to over 300 birds in the wild. While these efforts have been successful in recovering the species from extinction, the small population still faces threats from human disturbance, lead ammunition, and avian flu, and remains listed as critically endangered.

Wildlife corridors

What is a wildlife corridor?

Also known as habitat corridors, green corridors, ecoducts, or ecopassages, wildlife corridors describe areas where fish and wildlife need to move to complete their life cycles, which can span anywhere from a short stretch of river to the length of an entire continent. Established wildlife corridors, such as underpasses designed for wildlife migration beneath busy roads, keep local migratory animal species from encroaching human populations in areas of high interaction between the two.

How are wildlife corridors established?

Wildlife corridors are not formal designations, meaning congressional or executive action is not necessary to designate a wildlife corridor. They can describe areas that are completely natural, like an open landscape or an unobstructed river for migratory species to travel. They can also be established by developing travel avenues between two similar yet fragmented habitat areas. This can be done through natural revegetation, establishment of tree or shrub cover, fence row establishment through a plowed field, or establishing a buffer along streams or roadsides.

Because an abundance of wildlife corridors are on public lands, the secretary of the Interior does have the authority to direct funding for their establishment, restoration, and maintenance. In 2022, the Interior department announced $2.5 million in grants, which have been matched by another $7 million in private contributions, that were distributed to seven states and three Tribes for a total of 13 wildlife corridor projects.

How permanent and protective are wildlife corridors?

Because wildlife corridors are not a specific federal designation, corridors that are not included in another protected area, like a national wildlife refuge, are not federally protected. In 2019, legislation was introduced to formally establish a National Wildlife Corridor System that would provide for the designation and management of wildlife corridors, but the legislation has stalled in Congress. However, at least 12 states have enacted legislation to identify and protect wildlife corridors, contributing to over 1,000 dedicated wildlife crossings in the U.S. today.

How do wildlife corridors interact with other types of protections?

Because the National Wildlife Refuge System protects areas for the benefit of animals and native species, some wildlife corridors are located within the boundaries of national wildlife refuges. Many other designations, like national parks, national monuments, and wilderness areas, contain or overlap wildlife corridors.


Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Texas

Located at the southernmost point of Texas near the international border with Mexico, the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1979 to protect biodiversity. The wildlife refuge has been working to establish a contiguous wildlife corridor along the last 275 miles of the Rio Grande River by connecting isolated tracts of land managed by private landowners, non-profits, the state of Texas, and other national wildlife refuges.

Burnham Wildlife Corridor, Illinois

The Burnham Wildlife Corridor in Chicago is an example of the possibility of integrating wildlife crossings into urban areas. The 100-acre corridor runs through Burnham Park, and is the largest stretch of natural area along Chicago’s lakefront. The corridor connects various natural areas, including a prairie, the Burnham Nature Sanctuary, and a bird sanctuary. The corridor also provides opportunities for solitude and wildlife viewing with five unique gathering spaces designed by local artists and community members.

More Tools

Mineral Withdrawals

What are mineral withdrawals?

Most federally managed land (including BLM lands and national forests) are by default open to “settlement, sale, location, or entry,” which includes oil and gas or mining activities. A mineral withdrawal allows for the ability to limit specific activities (subject to valid existing rights) within a certain area to maintain its natural values, or to reserve it for a particular purpose or program. Withdrawals can also be used to transfer management from one department, agency, or bureau to another. 

How are mineral withdrawals established?

The president has the authority to make an administrative withdrawal in the form of an executive order or presidential proclamation, and can also make emergency withdrawals. The secretary of the Interior (or in some cases the Interior assistant secretary for land and minerals management) can establish an administrative withdrawal by signing a secretarial order, a public dand order, departmental order, U.S. Geological Survey order, or a BLM order. Presidents can also enact withdrawals by signing a presidential proclamation using authority granted by the Antiquities Act to designate “landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest” as a national monument. Congress also has the authority to establish withdrawals through legislative action in the form of a public law, which could include wilderness designations, the creation of national parks, and wild and scenic river designations, among others.

How permanent and protective are mineral withdrawals?

Administrative mineral withdrawals have the power to close public lands to new drilling and mining operations for a maximum length of 20 years, but they can be renewed. FLPMA mineral withdrawals are not limited to 20 years if they cover an area that is less than 5,000 acres, and can be enacted “for such period of time as [the Secretary] deems desirable for a resource use.” The 20-year limitation applies to FLPMA mineral withdrawals of more than 5,000 acres. Congress has the authority to legislate a permanent withdrawal, or a permanent withdrawal can be achieved through presidential proclamation under the Antiquities Act.

How do mineral withdrawals interact with other types of protection?

A mineral withdrawal does not prevent a federal, Tribal, or state land management agency from continuing to allow previously permitted activities within the boundaries of the withdrawal, including drilling, mining, recreation, trail maintenance, camping, or timber harvest. Many of the other tools mentioned in this report can include a legislatively-enacted mineral withdrawal. According to a May 2023 report from the Congressional Research Service, most monument proclamations since 1996 have prohibited new mineral leases, mining claims, prospecting or exploration activities, while carving out protections for valid, existing rights.


Grand Canyon, Arizona

On August 8, 2023, President Joe Biden signed a proclamation designating the Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni—Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon National Monument for nearly one million acres of Arizona public lands surrounding Grand Canyon National Park. The monument proposal was driven by the Grand Canyon Tribal Coalition in part to halt new uranium mining in the region that has the potential to negatively impact waterways and communities. As of May 2022, there were nearly 600 uranium mining claims on public lands around the Grand Canyon. Members of Congress had repeatedly put forth legislative proposals to permanently block new uranium mining around the park that have been stymied by congressional gridlock and dysfunction. Since 2012, a 20-year mineral withdrawal has been in place to prevent uranium mining on 1 million acres of public land surrounding the Grand Canyon. The new monument ensures the areas included within it are “withdrawn from all forms of entry, location, selection, sale, or other disposition under the public land laws or laws applicable to the Forest Service, other than by exchange that furthers the protective purposes of the monument; from location, entry, and patent under the mining laws; and from disposition under all laws relating to mineral and geothermal leasing.”

Greater Chaco Region, New Mexico

On June 2, 2023, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland announced a mineral withdrawal order to protect the cultural and historic resources surrounding Chaco Culture National Historical Park from new oil and gas leasing and mining claims. The new public land order withdraws public lands within a roughly 10-mile radius of the park for 20 years, subject to valid existing rights. According to the Biden administration, the withdrawal applies to 330,000 acres surrounding the park. This action is in response to decades of efforts from Tribes, elected officials, and the public to better protect the sacred and historic sites and Tribal communities currently living in northwest New Mexico. In 1987, the national park was designated as a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site whose “outstanding natural and cultural resources form the common inheritance of all mankind.” The withdrawal applies only to public lands and the federal mineral estate and does not apply to minerals owned by private, state, or Tribal entities.

Thompson Divide, Colorado

On October 12, 2022, the Biden administration initiated a process to withdraw the Thompson Divide area in Colorado from mineral leasing, mining, and geothermal energy development for 20 years (subject to valid existing rights). The area provides important wildlife habitat, recreation opportunities, grazing lands, and clean air and water. The proposal to protect the area was led by a coalition of sportsmen and women, ranchers, farmers and outdoor enthusiasts. The BLM and Forest Service submitted a joint withdrawal petition to Secretary Haaland, leading to the publication of a notice in the Federal Register to initiate a two-year segregation that will prohibit new mining claims and the issuance of new federal mineral leases on approximately 225,000 acres in the Thompson Divide area. Over the next two years, the Forest Service and the BLM will seek public comment and conduct a science-based environmental analysis on the proposed withdrawal.

Military Conservation Lands

What are military conservation lands?

There are a number of military conservation programs, but the cornerstone of military land conservation is the Sikes Act, which requires most military installations within the United States to develop and implement a comprehensive plan for natural resource conservation and management. The Department of Agriculture, Department of Defense (DOD), and Interior Department established the Sentinel Landscapes Partnership through a Memorandum of Understanding in 2013, which was updated in 2022. The  Army Compatible Use Buffers program and the Sentinel Landscapes Partnership both allow the federal government to purchase private land near military installations and manage it to meet conservation and military readiness goals. There are currently twelve designated sentinel landscapes in the country. 

How are military conservation lands established? 

The military installation conservation plans required under the Sikes Act are known as integrated natural resource management plans (INRMPs). They focus on ecosystem-based management with a goal of managing the natural resources to meet stewardship requirements while supporting military operations. Military installations prepare their INRMPs in cooperation with the Fish and Wildlife Service and state fish and wildlife agencies, ensuring appropriate consideration of fish, wildlife, and their habitat needs. The Readiness and Environmental Initiative program allows the DOD to enter into agreements with private conservation organizations, like the Trust for Public Land, to acquire real estate in the vicinity of military installations such as bases, posts, and forts.

How permanent and protective are military conservation lands? 

Military conservation land protections are semi-permanent and can change according to military base needs and use. The level of protection conferred on military conservation lands also varies based on the needs of the military base, but can be very protective. 

How do military conservation lands interact with other types of protection?

The Sentinel Landscapes program allows the DOD to partner with other land management agencies, such as the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, to steward large areas of land adjacent to military installations. 


Fort Huachuca, Arizona

Located in southern Arizona’s Sonoran Desert, Fort Huachuca is one of the largest unmanned aerial vehicle training facilities in the world. The arid lands surrounding the fort are predominantly made up of cattle ranches and native grasslands. The Fort Huachuca Sentinel Landscape was established in 2015 in response to development pressure from population growth. The total sentinel landscape covers 1.7 million acres, including the 81,000-acre base and 65,000 protected acres. The primary goal of the Sentinel Landscapes program is to use collaborative, community-driven strategies to tackle issues such as water conservation, agricultural viability, wildlife habitat restoration, and military mission protection.

Fort Indiantown Gap ACUB Program, Pennsylvania

Located in southeastern Pennsylvania, Fort Indiantown Gap (FTIG) is one of the busiest National Guard training sites in the country, with over 100,000 troops training there annually. The Army Compatible Use Buffer (ACUB) program is designed to minimize incompatible development and loss of habitat by utilizing permanent conservation easements, fee-sales, or other interests in land from willing landowners. The FTIG ACUB currently encompasses 9,300 acres. In addition to buffering citizens from noise and dust caused by military training, the FTIG ACUB protects working agricultural, forested, and undeveloped lands that benefit the local economy and supports recreational activities such as hiking, hunting, trapping, and fishing. Since 2016, the FTIG and partners, including The Nature Conservancy, have protected approximately 8,100-acres of land around the DeHart Reservoir, a high-quality drinking water source, aviation training area, and one of the last large areas of unbroken forested habitat in the region. 


List: Sentinel Landscapes

Land and Water Conservation Fund Acquisitions

What is the Land and Water Conservation Fund?

The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) touches every level of government and helps fund land acquisition and projects by the Bureau of Land Management, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, and the Forest Service. It was established by Congress in 1964 to help safeguard natural areas, watersheds, and cultural sites, as well as to provide recreation opportunities to the public. LWCF is funded by federal revenue from offshore oil and gas leasing. Since its inception in 1965, the LWCF program has funded $5.2 billion to support more than 45,000 projects in every county in the country.

How is LWCF used to protect federal lands?

LWCF money is divided into two pots: one for states, which provides grants to state and local governments to purchase lands and waters as well as conduct projects, and one for the federal government, which is used by federal land management agencies to acquire lands and waters as well as conduct projects. For example, a number of national park units contain non-federal land. Depending on the use and ownership of these lands, it is sometimes necessary for the federal government to acquire them in order to protect wildlife and natural resources as well as to provide park visitors with recreation opportunities. These purchases can be funded by LWCF’s federal dollars. LWCF’s state dollars are made available to states and local governments through grants to help fund land purchases for state and city parks as well as projects, like the construction of recreation facilities

How permanently protected are lands purchased through LWCF?

Given the broad range of projects funded through LWCF’s federal and state side programs, the amount of protection given to lands purchased with funding from LWCF varies greatly, as does the nature of projects funded by LWCF. The purchases are permanent.

How do LWCF lands interact with other types of protection?

LWCF can fund acquisitions that expand the footprint of national parks and other federal protected areas as well as fund projects completed by federal land management agencies, making it an essential tool in federal land protection. For example, the BLM, FWS, NPS, and USFS used LWCF funds to acquire over 850,000 acres from 2013 to 2017 in order to protect wildlife habitat and improve recreation access.


Cross Mountain Ranch, Colorado

From 2012 to 2013, Western Rivers Conservancy and the BLM acquired the 920-acre Cross Mountain Ranch on the Yampa River in northwest Colorado. Previously, access to the area was only feasible through private property or by boat. Now, the public conservation lands, as well as the access they provide, are open to all hunters, anglers, boaters, hikers and other outdoor recreationists. The project area includes almost three miles of land along the Yampa River and provides habitat to elk, mule deer, and endangered Colorado fish. Western Rivers Conservancy conveyed the 920-acre ranch to the Bureau of Land Management in 2013, using LWCF funding. 

New World Mine, Montana

From 2009 to 2010, the Trust for Public Land (TPL) and USFS used $8 million in LWCF funding to purchase 1,468 acres of mining claims in order to halt a gold mine from being built on the doorstep of Yellowstone National Park. TPL bought the claims over a two-year period and then sold them to the U.S. government, which purchased them using LWCF funding, for inclusion in the Custer Gallatin National Forest. The purchase followed a deal negotiated by President Bill Clinton in 1995 that stopped the development of the proposed New World Mine, but left the claims in private ownership. 

Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico

In 2014, LWCF funding made it possible to acquire the lands needed to complete the 570-acre Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge, the southwest’s first urban national wildlife refuge, just outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico. The refuge is built on a former dairy farm. After the farm closed in 2010, a coalition of neighbors petitioned the federal government to buy the farm and turn it into a wildlife refuge. This led to the purchase of the land by the FWS, with the help of partners including the State of New Mexico, the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, and the Trust for Public Land. LWCF contributed nearly $6 million of the $18.5 million cost of the refuge. 

Rio Grande Del Norte National Monument, New Mexico

Over the last 20 years, the Trust for Public Land and BLM have used nearly $24 million in LWCF funding to complete over nine land acquisition projects in New Mexico’s Rio Grande Del Norte National Monument—protecting nearly 22,000 acres to date, including iconic landscapes, such as Ute Mountain and the Taos Valley Overlook, as well as creating new trailheads and improving public access to the monument. Securing these lands ended the threat of incompatible development, improved public access and protected critical elk migration habitat in the region, according to TPL.


The goal of this report is to highlight the wide range of tools available to increase protections for federal public lands. The conservation designations highlighted above came into existence over the past century and a half in response to the vast variation in landscapes in need of protection in the U.S. If there is land at risk of degradation, or habitat at risk of destruction, there is likely a fitting tool to protect it. And while it may be hard to imagine the creation of another Yosemite or Grand Canyon National Park, almost every one of the protected landscapes listed as examples in this report came to be conserved thanks to the efforts of a single person or group. 

Most public land conservation starts at the ground level, out of a deep passion to ensure a specific region is preserved for the future. For example, the Valle de Oro Wildlife Refuge started with conversations between neighbors, which led to the creation of a community coalition, which led to the eventual purchase and restoration of a former dairy farm by the federal government. In another case, the small but mighty Fort Mojave Tribe led a multi-Tribal effort to protect the lands around their sacred peak, Avi Kwa Ame, resulting in the designation of Avi Kwa Ame National Monument. Finally, public input from a single individual or community can result in federal land management plans that emphasize conservation over extraction or that protect a specific area, such as the creation of ACECs in RMPs.

These battles to preserve specific public lands—or to turn privately-owned land into protected public land—can take decades to come to fruition. And reaching a permanently protected state is often achieved by first securing a low level protection for a large region or a high level of protection for a small part of a large region. In the case of Bears Ears National Monument, a few wilderness designations eventually became part of a large national monument. In the case of Grand Canyon National Park, two national monuments were eventually combined and elevated by Congress to become a national park. 

In order to protect federal public lands from extractive industries and other forms of development and degradation, conservation advocates will need to use all of the tools in this toolbox and more. Conservation is not a “one and done” scenario—it is more often a path than a final destination. As the examples in this report show, small steps can often lead to major protections. A local effort to better preserve a special area or fragile landscape today could start a cascade that leads to the designation of a new national park or monument years from now. And at the current rate of biodiversity loss, there’s no time to wait.