Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2010 | 2:01 a.m.
More than 200 years ago, in the midst of their epic trek across the continent, struggling against the relentless current of the Missouri River in what is now Montana, the men of the Lewis and Clark expedition suddenly found themselves in a geological wonderland.
White sandstone cliffs rose hundreds of feet above them, filled with eerie formations carved from the soft stone by thousands of years of erosion. Dark igneous rock outcroppings and lava dikes punctuated the unexpected landscape. “As we passed on,” Lewis wrote, in what has become one of the expedition’s most famous passages, “it seemed as if those scenes of visionary enchantment would never have an end.”
Luckily for us all, unlike much of the land Lewis and Clark encountered, transformed by two centuries of ceaseless change, this remote section of the Missouri remains essentially the same as the day the explorers first described it with such breathless wonder. You can canoe the same stretch of river and look up to see exactly the same scenes of visionary enchantment.
The Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, along with Red Rock Canyon and Sloan Canyon National Conservation Areas just outside Las Vegas, are now part of our National Conservation Lands, officially the National Landscape Conservation System.
These lands are the newest permanently protected collection of public lands, joining national parks, national wildlife refuges and national forests as another way Americans preserve their heritage by conserving at least some parts of the bounteous continent we inhabit.
The lands can take you on the paths that created our nation — not only the route of Lewis and Clark, but the trails pioneers followed to Oregon, or that Mormons took to Utah. They can bring you to landscapes of breathtaking diversity: from Idaho’s Craters of the Moon (where astronauts trained for their lunar landings) to Red Rock (200,000 pristine acres less than 20 miles from the neon frenzy of Las Vegas) and Sloan Canyon (considered the Sistine Chapel of Native American rock art because of the size and significance of its great many petroglyphs); from Colorado’s Canyons of the Ancients (one of the greatest collections of Ancestral Puebloan archeological sites) to Utah’s Grand Staircase Escalante (nearly 2 million acres of slickrock canyons and red sandstone cliffs). Like the much older national parks, these National Conservation Lands also represent America at its best — an idea that a great nation preserves its most special, even sacred, places for all people and for all time.
Starting Friday, the Conservation Lands Foundation, along with its friends and supporters, followed by the Bureau of Land Management, will gather in Las Vegas to consider the future management and direction of these spectacular places.
Having been set aside and designated for protection, this newest conservation system is still young and vulnerable. The special interests that see these lands in terms of dollars to be extracted are still powerful. The BLM still needs to codify and enforce policies to show it is capable of caring for the treasures entrusted to it. And local groups such as the Friends of Red Rock Canyon and Friends of Sloan Canyon — small, volunteer organizations composed of citizens from the Las Vegas area valiantly defending the places at their back door — still need help in convincing their neighbors that the regulations required for protection are not heavy-handed government intrusions but guarantees of a better, sustainable future for everyone.
There is still much work to do. But let’s make a wish for the National Conservation Lands that 200 years from now, Meriwether Lewis’ words still apply, and it will seem as if those scenes of visionary enchantment will never have an end.
Dayton Duncan is author of a number of books about the American West and most recently wrote and produced Ken Burns’ documentary on the history of the national parks. He is board member of the Conservation Lands Foundation.