Michael Powelson is director of government relations for the western division of The Nature Conservancy’s North America Conservation Region.

Yesterday I joined policy makers and conservation advocates to celebrate some of the most cherished landscapes in the country — and the program that has been instrumental in keeping them that way. We listened as U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar lauded the Bureau of Land Management’s National Landscape Conservation System (NLCS), a 10-year-old program that is helping protect natural treasures.

In the American West, land managed by the BLM stretches from snow-covered peaks to sage-grouse stomping ground. These lands back up to cities, support ranches, provide endless recreation, and play an integral part in protecting ecologically important landscapes.

Grouped together under the NLCS, some of these truly iconic BLM lands have been conserved for their unique cultural, scientific value and ecological attributes – a priceless legacy for Americans.

In fact, the BLM has federally recognized almost 900 areas adding up to about 27 million acres — including National Monuments, National Conservation Areas, Wilderness Areas, Wilderness Study Areas, Wild and Scenic Rivers, National Scenic and Historic Trails, and Conservation Lands of the California Desert.

10 years ago, the Interior Department laid out a vision for the NLCS. A special designation wasn’t enough. A better model for the BLM’s conservation system was needed to ensure stronger protection, increase awareness and help integrate these lands into the broader local community of working lands for wildlife, ranches and tourism. The NLCS signifies a greater dedication to conservation by the BLM.

A decade later, we celebrate these amazing places, as well as the foresight to conserve them for future generations.

One important concept behind NLCS is that natural landscapes thrive when ecosystems remain intact. Protecting one part of a river is an important step; protecting multiple facets of a watershed is a huge leap.

For instance, the BLM’s 57,000-acre San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area in southern Arizona is living, thriving proof. Designated by Congress in 1988, the area is an oasis. But it’s not alone. In fact, it’s only a piece of the puzzle.

Flowing north out of Mexico for up to 170 miles, this river provides critical habitat for millions of migrating birds, including the endangered Southwestern Willow Flycatcher, plus such diverse wildlife as leopard frogs, mountain lions, bear and coatimundi. The San Pedro provides water for domestic and agricultural uses, and thousands of visitors flock here to enjoy bird and wildlife viewing and other outdoor recreation.

The San Pedro River is the beneficiary of more than two decades of successful collaborative conservation efforts. Private landowners, all major public land management agencies, hundreds of volunteers and the Conservancy are working to restore this international waterway, one of the last major undammed rivers in the Southwest.

As you can see, meaningful conservation takes more than the efforts of the BLM or the Conservancy or any single group for that matter. Conservation must be a team effort, and success is only achieved with widespread engagement of all interest holders.

Today, a rapidly changing world demands that the Conservancy and its many partners accelerate the scope, scale and pace of conservation to ensure a sustainable world for wildlife, for ourselves and for future generations.

The 10th anniversary of the NLCS is a reason to celebrate. It is a step in the right direction. One of many we need to take.

Learn more about the Conservancy’s work on the San Pedro River. To see how this local conservation action fits into the bigger picture, check out a virtual tour of the Colorado River Basin.

(Image: Riparian forest on the Lower San Pedro. Credit: Adriel Heisey.)

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