The BLM currently manages 13 national conservation areas-the largest being the 9.5 million acre California Desert NCA (designated in 1976) and the smallest the 21,767 acre Gila Box Riparian NCA in Arizona (designated in 1990). Eight of the 13 NCAs have been established since 1990 with four created in 2000 alone.
While the burgeoning number of NCAs is a recent phenomenon, the first NCA can trace its roots back to the 60s when a group of citizens in northern California began promoting special designation for a relatively remote area adjacent to the Pacific coast.
These early efforts led to the King Range NCA, established by an act of Congress on Oct. 21, 1970. This NCA covers over 60,000 acres and includes beaches, coastal bluffs, old growth forests, and high peaks in an area also known as the "Lost Coast." The area is lauded as having diverse recreational opportunities in a "spectacular" area where the land meets the sea.
The King Range Act of 1970 states that the NCA was established for "the purpose of conserving and developing, for the use and benefit of the people of the United States, the lands and other resources therein under a program of multiple usage and of sustained yield"-a relatively generic and un-committing legislative statement that led to a relatively generic resource management plan.
The King Range NCA management plan, completed in 1974, was amended several times for issues including wilderness area recommendations in 1988 and 1991, and is now, like many BLM regions, undergoing a complete update. It is interesting to note that the initial NCA concept was developed during the same years that the Wilderness Act was enacted. In researching the King Range I have asked myself why these citizens, so concerned about preserving the area, did not instead pursue a Wilderness designation. While I don't have the complete answer yet as to why they pursued an NCA, there are several reasons why it was not designated as wilderness.
First, at this early date BLM lands were not on the wilderness radar. Wilderness during this early era was imagined (even by ardent wilderness advocates) to be the pristine and remote areas of the national forests, wildlife reserves, and parks-not the relatively pedestrian BLM lands. This all eventually changed in the late 70s when the Federal Lands Policy Management Act mandated wilderness reviews on BLM lands.
Second, it is quite reasonable to think that the proponents had something else in mind other than wilderness. They obviously saw something special in the area and wanted a designation that set it apart and a management scenario more robust or lasting than typical efforts provided. The NCA concept may well have fit their needs better than other available options.
Third, there were numerous uses and private property in-holdings that may have created a landscape not typically imagined as being a wilderness area. Again, we must remember that early wilderness proponents were not casting nearly as wide a net as they are today.
But, as with so many BLM areas, the concept of wilderness has caught up with the King Range. On May 21, 2002 California Senator Barbara Boxer introduced the California Wild Heritage Act. The act would designate over 95 wilderness areas and other designations (more on that in another column) in California totaling more than 2.7 million acres, including a 41,100 acre wilderness area in the King Range-representing approximately two-thirds of the NCA.
While there is little chance that the entire California Wild Heritage Act will be passed this year or next, the California Wilderness Coalition, unlike the Utah Wilderness Coalition, is willing to break their proposal into various pieces and pass what they can, when they can. California Wilderness Coalition Policy Director Ryan Henson tells me that the proposed King Range Wilderness Area is relatively uncontroversial and is likely to be one of the pieces passed in the near future. The King Range NCA can expect to soon join newer NCAs, such as the Colorado Canyons NCA (established in 2000), that have a sizeable portion of the NCA designated as formal wilderness.
In many ways the story of the King Range parallels that of many BLM lands-once obscure the area is now well know and has a special designation; once off the wilderness radar, the area is now headed for large-scale wilderness designation; once an area more prone to visits by ranchers, miners, and loggers, these vanishing species have been replaced by burgeoning numbers of recreationalists who have discovered camping on the beach with hungry bears, hiking the extensive backcountry trail network, and surfing on remote waves.
Despite my skepticism of the wilderness for everywhere conservation strategy, and my propensity to avoid crowded public lands, I'm thinking about trying to find some time to visit the King Range and see first-hand where the BLM NCA concept was initiated.
(Durrant is a professor of geography at BYU)