A small conservation group preferring to do its work under the radar is having a big impact protecting the nation's lands, including significant landscapes across the West.
Headquartered in Durango, Conservation Lands Foundation held its biannual board meeting Tuesday at Open Shutter Gallery, marking the first time the group has met in the city in several years.
“It's really great to be back in Durango,” board member and former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt said. “I must say, as I worked the crowd, I realized politicians never lose the urge to shake hands with everyone in the room. I'm not campaigning, I'm just a politician.”
Babbitt in 2007 was one of several organizers of CLF, having served as governor of Arizona and secretary of the Interior under President Bill Clinton. He said the idea for the group began about 15 years ago on a hike at Canyons of the Ancients.
“A vision gradually emerged that what this is really about is an archaeological landscape,” he said. “It wasn't just about four or five ruins, it was about several thousand acres of land that had been lived upon for centuries. I went back to Washington, talked to Clinton and said this is the beginning of a totally new idea in protected areas.”
Now, the group works to protect, restore and expand the Bureau of Land Management's National Conservation Lands in what Executive Director Brian O'Donnell called the newest collection of protected lands in the nation.
“Our role has been to look across lands they manage and make sure the most important lands are safeguarded,” O'Donnell said, “some of which are the most ecologically, culturally significant lands across the country.”
However, in many ways, the BLM is playing catch up when it comes to preserving land.
“Out West, there is the Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife and National Parks – and they all have strong management programs,” Babbitt said. “But the BLM is the biggest land agency of them all, and they've never had a strong conservation program.”
O'Donnell said many areas immediately surrounding Durango were sold off to oil and gas drilling.
“The BLM's policy was to dispose of land,” he said. “Many BLM lands in this district have been altered and no longer have the ability to be set aside as national conservation areas. That opportunity is missed, which is a shame.”
Still, there have been many success stories, evidenced by Canyons of the Ancients and Chimney Rock national monuments, where large swaths of land are protected rather than a pinpointed site. Babbitt said that's largely attributable to the growing consciousness for conservation.
“Only in the last generation have we begun to open our eyes to the reality of the arid landscape of the West, which are mostly BLM lands” he said. “We have finally begun to awake to the importance of it, and that has to be worked on because government agencies respond to the people. That's the reason local engagement is so important.”
That's where CLF steps in, said Chairman Ed Norton. Instead of taking the role of the leading voice in a land-use debate, CLF instead supports local groups in their efforts to sway public opposition.
“With time and effort and talking, you can really work with local people,” Norton said. “The oil and gas industry are powerful, but local people are powerful, too. They vote.”
The pushback from the energy production industry is a major obstacle, but Babbitt said he has long held the belief that the two, preservation and industry, can co-exist.
“How many of you know, that there is gas production at the Canyon of the Ancients?” Babbitt asked the crowd of about 30 members and non-members. “The opponent says you're taking things off the slate of use and production, that the land is just being set aside for weak environmentalists. But (oil and gas) can be managed with minimal impact. It is possible to make them work together.
“And one reason the BLM is taking such good care of that place is because they're looking over their shoulder,” he said. “That's the model for the entire West, and it began right here in Durango.”