Thursday, Jan. 4, 2007 | 7:02 a.m.
Conservationists and lawmakers are concerned that a federal plan to overhaul how the government manages its premier wild West real estate could spell trouble for the 27 million-acre system that includes the Red Rock National Conservation Area.
At issue is the restructuring of a quiet mission within the Bureau of Land Management - the National Landscape Conservation System, in which some of its most popular lands are touted for their scientific, cultural, educational and ecological benefits.
The lands that are included in the conservation system include Red Rock's 196,000 acres, the 48,000-acre Sloan Canyon National Conservation Area south of Las Vegas, and another 2.6 million acres of federally protected national monuments and wilderness in Nevada.
The Interior Department announced to its BLM staff in November that it wants to change the conservation system's management, but has yet to make a formal announcement detailing those changes to the public or to members of Congress.
Department officials say the overhaul, part of its new "Managing for Excellence" initiative, will improve the landscape system. But conservationists and lawmakers, pointing to Bush administration efforts to cut funding to the system, say they fear that the changes could hurt.
Last month, the leaders of the National Landscape Conservation System's congressional caucus wrote to BLM Director Kathleen Clarke asking for an explanation of what changes are planned.
It is unclear how those changes will affect the conservation system's budget, staffing and goals, four members of the caucus complained in a letter to Clarke.
Clarke resigned Dec. 28 and the BLM has not yet formally responded to the inquiry.
The 26-member bipartisan caucus includes Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev. , who did not sign the letter.
Tod Story, a Berkley spokesman, said the congresswoman is watching for issues affecting the landscape system and Nevada's interests in the issue. The system and its budget are of "critical importance" to Southern Nevada, he said.
Berkley has "seen firsthand the damage that can occur when staffing levels are too low and those public areas are not being patrolled properly and managed," Story said, referring to the congresswoman's tour of an area scorched by arson at the Red Rock conservation area last year.
Denise Ryan, a National Wildlife Federation lobbyist in Washington, D.C., who used to live in Las Vegas, said she fears that the reorganization could hide an effort to cut funding for the landscape system. Conservationists are wary because of a Bush administration effort to cut the landscape system's funding from $42 million in 2006 to $37 million in 2007.
Congress has not passed the BLM's 2007 budget, freezing it at last year's level. President Bush is scheduled to deliver the 2008 budget in early February.
Ryan said the biggest problem with the reorganization is that it is not clear what the outcome will be - or even what the administration hopes to accomplish.
"We don't really know how it's going to affect the stuff on the ground yet," she said. "The most important thing for us is: Does it make sense and how is it going to affect the budget The BLM did not roll this out. Usually when (officials) have a program, they roll it out to Congress and to the public.
"It's been very secretive, which makes us nervous I think they intend to do it, they want to do it quietly, and they're going to do what they're going to do. I hope I'm wrong."
BLM officials have not publicly announced the changes, but an agency spokeswoman said they are still in the early stages of discussion.
"These are proposals and proposals only," BLM spokeswoman Celia Boddington said. She said the changes would "better position our agency to better meet the needs of our customers," the millions of visitors to the landscape system across the American West.
Some of the changes, she said, would affect heritage education and volunteer education, which would go under the landscape system umbrella. Those proposals would help the landscape system showcase "some of the West's most spectacular landscapes," she said.
"We are going to be fleshing out the details, but right now we have the proposal outlines," Boddington said.
Kirsten Cannon, a spokeswoman with the Las Vegas BLM office, said the effect of the changes could be limited locally.