To me April is a month to be abroad in the landscape, when the earth is bursting with life in the wake of winter. This urge usually takes me to the California desert, nominally looking for wildflowers, always taking pictures, but mainly enjoying the incomparable sense of space, freedom, and solitude.
En route to and from my home in the San Francisco Bay Area, I set a course through other places that are at their peak in spring. In one representative year, I drove south along the Diablo Range to the Carrizo Plain, a basin west of the San Joaquin Valley, where the green hills were painted with yellow mustard and dotted with pronghorn antelope. Then I headed east into the Tehachapis, where my conservationist friend, Keith, takes care of an oasis crowded with willows, migrating songbirds, and straying dirt bikers (from neighboring Dove Springs and Jawbone Canyon). From there I dropped into the Mojave by way of Walker Pass, entering into the Joshua tree zone and camping amid the Trona Pinnacles, a spectacular arrangement of tufa spires on the prehistoric shore of Searles Dry Lake. I proceeded north through Panamint Valley—the 1849 survival route of the Manly wagon party, which almost perished in nearby Death Valley—circling around Owens Lake to the Alabama Hills, where dawn emblazoned the snowcapped Sierra Nevada.
A veritable tour de force it was: an orgy of stunning scenery, intriguing biology, and amazing geology, a postcard collection of the West so compelling that a Marlboro ad was being filmed near one of the spots where I camped. Nevertheless, in my weeks of travels, I paid not a single entrance fee and every night I laid my sleeping bag wherever I wanted, unconfined by public campgrounds. No place that I visited was within the borders of a national park, nor was any privately owned. The trip took place entirely on our collective American commons, the "public domain" overseen by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
As far as public perception is concerned, the BLM is (at best) one of the least appreciated and (at worst) one of the most disdained federal agencies. It has never enjoyed the esteem given to the National Park Service or Smokey the Bear's U.S. Forest Service, and lacks even the dim cachet of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees endangered species. Yet the BLM manages more land than any of those offices—a total of 264 million acres (compared with the Forest Service's 191 million or the National Park Service's 83 million)—an empire nearly as big as Texas and California combined, almost half the total property held by the federal government. In addition, the BLM controls claims on 370 million acres of subsurface mineral resources—oil, gas, coal, gold, silver, iron, copper, uranium, etc.—and is charged with responsibility for wild horses, wilderness areas, historic trails, and archaeological sites. In its most traditional and contentious role, the BLM also oversees the grazing of millions of cattle, sheep, and goats by thousands of ranchers.
Almost all of this takes place in 12 Western states—Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. The predominant feature of BLM land is commonly thought to be sagebrush, but its holdings include beautiful rivers, breathtaking mountains, dramatic coastlines, luxuriant forests, and picturesque canyons—almost all of which are open, in one way or another, to exploitation. Whereas the National Park Service has always had a preservationist mandate, the wide-open domain of the BLM has always been targeted for utilization. The agency is ordered by Congress to use, manage, develop, and protect its resources for present and future generations—a mission as diverse (some may say schizophrenic) as its astonishingly varied kingdom. The lack of a clear mandate—or much in the way of restriction—that makes BLM land attractive to modern day refugees from civilization (like me) has also played havoc with its ecological health, as its various users have become accustomed to having their way with the land. Among critics, the agency's initials are said to stand for Bureau of Livestock and Mining.
Aside from philosophical arguments about its direction, the bureau has always been handicapped by penurious funding. In its budget for this year, for example, Congress bestowed $2.82 per acre on the BLM in operating funds, as opposed to $6.65 per acre for the Forest Service and $16.85 for the Park Service. Given such a state of affairs, it is no surprise that this poor stepchild among federal land use agencies is constantly under fire.
"Miners dislike and distrust us just as much as the Sierra Club does," Blaine Heald, one of the nine rangers charged with patrolling 4.5 million acres of California desert, once told me. "The BLM was always an agency that was told to do more with less."
In a phrase, BLM territory can be categorized as the boondocks. In the beginning, the public domain reached from the Appalachian Mountains to the Pacific—a 2 billion-acre empire. (Though Native Americans might differ with his analysis, historian Frederick Jackson Turner called it "the richest free gift that was ever spread out before civilized man.") To encourage its settlement, Congress created the General Land Office in 1812, helping to "dispose" of this property by transferring it to private ownership. Eventually the government recognized that some of it should be preserved. Over the next 100 years, two-thirds of this realm was transformed into national forests, parks, monuments, reservoirs, wildlife refuges, Indian reservations, and sundry other jurisdictions.
Most of the rest—the so-called leftover land—continued to be used by miners and ranchers, who, through such measures as the Mining Law of 1872 (which still makes it possible for people and companies to acquire mineral deposits for only $2.50 and $5 an acre), were permitted to reap its riches without taking care of the sod. By the early 20th century, overgrazing and soil deterioration had taken a serious toll on the land, so in 1934 Congress passed the Taylor Grazing Act, which eliminated nomadic herding and required a fee for grazing livestock. The Grazing Service, however, was heavily influenced by ranchers, who succeeded in keeping the fees so low that even today the BLM spends more on grazing than it collects.
In an effort to consolidate authority over the public domain, in 1946 the Grazing Service merged with the old General Land Office, forming the Bureau of Land Management. The agency still had no clear mandate, however, and only one worker for every 3 million acres that it was to oversee. When John F. Kennedy became president in 1961, he noted that public lands suffered from "uncontrolled use and a lack of proper management." His interior secretary, Stewart Udall, advocated a philosophy that stressed the protection of natural resources. The Classification and Multiple Use Act of 1964 stated in writing that public lands should be made available for many uses, but managed so as to sustain the environment.
The watershed year (so to speak) for the BLM was 1976, when Congress passed the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA, or "Flipma," as it has been called since)—a long-awaited "organic act" that, in theory, placed the agency on equal footing with the National Park and Forest services. FLPMA decreed, among other things, that flora, fauna, camping, hiking, access for off-road vehicles, water quality, and preservation now carried as much weight as mining, grazing, and timber harvesting. It identified "areas of critical environmental concern" and, underlining the BLM's role as an active steward (rather than an uninterested caretaker), it nearly doubled the agency's budget, giving it a battalion of badge- and gun-carrying rangers to enforce the law.
It would be nice to report that, post-FLPMA, the BLM and its community walked off into the sunset arm in arm toward a new and environmentally harmonious future. But old ideas die hard, and FLPMA was soon followed by the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion, a Western antifederal movement demanding that the public domain be turned over to state and private ownership. The movement evaporated, however, after a sympathetic Ronald Reagan was elected president and his new interior secretary, James Watt, slashed grazing fees and cut the BLM budget, opening more than a million acres of wilderness to development. (The latter action was ultimately reversed by a federal court, which found that Watt had "failed to follow the law.")
The dust has settled somewhat since then, though the BLM continues to evolve with the nation's priorities. Most of our population growth is taking place in the West, forcing more changes on the agency's turf: As parks have gotten more crowded, the wide-open character of BLM land has become more appealing, with space and quiet replacing oil, gold, and grass as its most valuable commodities. With burgeoning population centers like Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Salt Lake City bordering directly on BLM land, recreation now ranks as the single biggest use of the public domain.
The agency has responded to this shift with an ambitious array of programs. Where its expertise once lay mainly in mining and ranching, today it employs scientists, wilderness planners, and recreation specialists. The BLM now manages 412 campgrounds, 136 wilderness areas, 300 "watchable wildlife" sites, 152 research areas, 43 natural landmarks, 23 national recreation trails, nine conservation areas, and 69 scenic "backcountry byways," or out-of-the-way drives. The Clinton administration is considering a dozen BLM sites, including California's Carrizo Plain and Oregon's Steens Mountain, for designation as national monuments, aiming to retain the bureau as manager—a role that until recently had been reserved for the Park Service.
For longtime lovers of little-known places, the effect is bittersweet. In spite of its apparent openness, BLM land has historically been a world of well-kept secrets. Greater attention is a mixed blessing, conferring both welcome protection and increased visitation. With so much clutter already in the West—whether in the form of heap-leach gold mines or overrun national parks—one wonders how many more developed campgrounds the backcountry can tolerate. Meanwhile, "multiple use" of the land infuriates everyone who considers his or her kind of use to be preeminent. To cite one example, should cattle continue to be grazed in wilderness areas that are supposed to be free of major human influence, especially when federal lands in the West account for only 2 percent of the nation's beef? Such questions are hard to avoid as one tours the public domain.
Following are some of the most prominent places in the province of the BLM. For people like me, who feel the highest and best use of land is to remain undeveloped, there's still plenty of territory to explore (at least for the moment), but whichever way you choose to go—toward trails and kiosks or to undefined spaces—treat the place like your own backyard. Even with somebody else's cows in it, that's exactly what it is.
Sand dunes, cinder cones, lava flows, Joshua trees, piñon forests, 90 mountain ranges, 1,500 species of animals and flowering plants, 100,000 archaeological sites—such are the enticements of the 25 million-acre California desert, covering fully one-fourth of the state. California actually contains parts of three deserts—the Mojave, Sonoran, and Great Basin. Circumscribed by the California Desert Conservation Area, this region contains all the issues facing the BLM in microcosm: It has been historically underappreciated but is now prized for its beauty, and it's located alongside the fastest-growing population centers in the United States. It was the first place in the public domain to see the mining and grazing supplanted by recreation—specifically hiking, camping, rock climbing, wildlife watching, hunting, and off-road vehicle use, which is now restricted to designated routes.
California Desert District, Riverside (909) 697-5200, www.californiadesert.gov
Carrizo Plain, California
In good years, wildflower displays in central California's Carrizo Plain can be mind-boggling. A desert-like drainage basin (its rain runoff has no outlet to the sea) between the Caliente and Temblor mountains, this little-known valley is the largest remaining example of the San Joaquin Valley grassland ecosystem. Decorated at its northern end by Soda Lake, a seasonal playa that hosts thousands of sandhill cranes in winter, the Carrizo also harbors several endangered species, including the San Joaquin kit fox, giant kangaroo rat, and antelope ground squirrel. Evidence of Chumash Indian occupation is on display at Painted Rock, one of California's preeminent examples of prehistoric art. Meanwhile, the Temblor Mountains are one of the best places on the planet to see the effects of earthquake creep: As afternoon shadows deepen on the western face of the range, each streambed takes a dogleg to the north when it hits the San Andreas Fault, etching a series of dramatic S-curves into the scarp.
BLM field office, Bakersfield
(661) 391-6000, www.ca.blm.gov/bakersfield//
Alabama Hills, California
Marlboro ads are the latest in a long line of film images issuing forth from this spot. Situated between the town of Lone Pine and Whitney Portal in California's eastern Sierra Nevada, the "hills" are a collection of eroded granite boulders. Their backdrop is the snow-covered Sierra crest, topped by the highest point in the continental United States, 14,494-foot Mount Whitney. Owing to this spectacular juxtaposition, the area has served as location for countless Westerns. Even for amateur photographers, the place is not to be missed—though you must get up at dawn if you want to witness a show-stopping spectacle: the first rays of sunlight hitting Mount Whitney, then making their way down the Sierra to ignite the Alabama rocks. After it's over, hike or bike to your heart's content.
BLM field office, Bishop
(760) 872-4881, www.ca.blm.gov/bishop//
King Range, California
Very few parts of the California coast are innocent of asphalt; Highway 1 shadows nearly its entire length northward, finally giving up and turning inland when it runs into the King Range, a section of shoreline so inaccessible it has been dubbed the "Lost Coast."
This was the nation's First National Conservation Area, a category exclusive to the BLM—in this case a spectacular 60,000-acre zone of cliffs, canyons, beaches, redwoods, old-growth fir, and chaparral. The terrain is rugged and steep, rising 4,000 feet less than three miles from the sea; nevertheless, it contains hundreds of miles of trails for hiking, driving, and biking. The Lost Coast Trail, a legendary backpacking route, follows the beach in the north, taking to the hills in the south. Anglers and divers flock to the area for salmon, steelhead, and abalone.
BLM field office, Arcata
(707) 825-2300, www.ca.blm.gov/arcata//
Steens Mountain, Oregon
Steens Mountain is the scenic wonder of southeastern Oregon. The tallest mountain in the northern Great Basin, it's not unlike a 30-mile-long Sierra Nevada, with a long and gentle western slope that tops out at 9,773 feet and then drops precipitously to the Alvord Desert in the east. The ecological difference between those environments is dramatic, the upper slopes receiving four times as much rain as the desert below and supporting herds of bighorn sheep and groves of quaking aspen. The top of Steens is the highest point that you can drive to in Oregon—an opportunity afforded by the 66-mile Steens Mountain Loop Road, which traverses the entire massif, skirting an enormous quartet of glaciated, U-shaped valleys and crossing the wonderfully named Donner und Blitzen (thunder and lightning) River. Several campgrounds are situated along the way, though in most years the entire loop is snow free and open only in August, September, and October. Steens Mountain is also relatively close to the volcanic marvels of the Diamond Craters Natural Area and National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center (in Baker), also managed by the BLM.
BLM district manager, Burns/Hines
(541) 573-4400, www.or.blm.gov/Burns//
Black Rock Desert, Nevada
The Black Rock Desert in northwestern Nevada is one of the largest and ¾attest alkaline playas on earth. Having gained recent fame as the site of the annual Burning Man festival, this remnant of ancient Lake Lahontan—25 miles long and 15 miles wide—is actually underlain by silt more than a mile deep. Its seemingly endless, mirage-covered surface was a sometimes-fatal endurance test for 19th-century wagon parties, which targeted an enormous black rock midway across as a landmark. Today it's a place where you can hike or ride or wind sail for hours without turning, though this is most safely done in summer—when the lake bed gets wet, it becomes impassable. Fragile dunes and hot springs dot the playa's perimeter; High Rock Canyon, a four-wheel-drive corridor once navigated by Kit Carson and John C. Frémont, is to the northwest. On the recreational spectrum, you can play a game of desert golf or join the Labor Day creative frenzy that is Burning Man.
BLM field office, Winnemucca
(775) 623-1500, www.blm.gov/nv/st/en/fo/wfo.html
Red Rock Canyon, Nevada
Nevada is the capital of the public domain in at least one sense: Seventy percent of the state consists of BLM land. No other place condenses the scenery, opportunity, or irony of that status better than Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, which lies only 17 miles west of Las Vegas. Here at the foot of the Spring Mountains, the Keystone Thrust Fault has, over the last 65 million years, created the spectacular Wilson Cliffs, an assortment of red and cream colored sandstone that stands out like a necklace of rubies on a brown limestone body. Well known as a rock climber's paradise, the area also offers a 13-mile scenic drive, not to mention 30 miles of hiking trails that wind up and away from the neon lights of Las Vegas below.
BLM Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area
(702) 363-1921, www.redrockcanyon.blm.gov//
Grand Staircase/ Escalante, Utah
The multicolored cliffs, canyons, buttes, and pinnacles of southern Utah are so remote that this was the last place in the contiguous United States to be mapped. In 1996, 1.7 million acres of it was preserved by presidential decree as the Grand Staircase/Escalante National Monument-the first such designation entrusted to the BLM. It's still one of the nation's least developed areas, offering primitive camping, hunting, fishing, biking, and four-wheel-drive access to well-prepared visitors. Outside the monument's borders (and those of the state's national parks), Utah's 22 million-acre public domain is open to mineral exploration and off-road vehicle use, making it the most hotly contested public land in the West. Much of the BLM empire in Utah remains the most eye-popping public land in the world.
BLM field office, Escalante
(435) 826-5499, www.blm.gov/ut/st/en/fo/grand_staircase-escalante.html
Snake River Birds of Prey, Idaho
Thirty miles southwest of Boise, the Snake River cuts through a 700-foot-deep canyon. The lava cliffs along the river, with thermal updrafts rising past innumerable nooks, crannies, and caves, are an ideal home for avian raptors, or birds of prey. As it has happened over millennia, strong winds have also deposited a deep layer of fine sand on the plateau above the river, creating an excellent habitat for squirrels and rabbits—a raptor's favorite food source. The result is the nation's, and perhaps the world's, densest concentration of raptors: the Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area, home to some 600 nesting pairs of hawks, bald eagles, falcons, owls, and hundreds more migrating through in spring. There is a network of hiking, biking, and horseback riding trails throughout the 485,000-acre area; and boaters and anglers can also navigate 81 miles of river. Few places provide such a direct illumination of the relationship between geology and biology.
BLM Bruneau Resource Area, Boise
(208) 384-3300, www.id.blm.gov/bopnca
Photos by Steve Bly, Dennis Flaherty, and Larry Ulrich
This article was first published in March 2000. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.