Editor's Note: This is Part 1 of two-part story on the National Landscape Conservation System. Encompassing more than 27 million acres of rugged, beautiful public land out West, it's run by the Bureau of Land Management as a sort of shadow National Parks System. It's all yours to explore, as author Craig Childs does in this story, finding solitude, wildlife and ancient rock art. Click here for Part 2.
The only map I have shows the way out of Las Vegas—always a good thing to know.
It is crisp and folded-up on the passenger seat and it says to take the eastbound interstate, which slowly unclenches me from 16-lane traffic. Overpass shadows slice across me between the glare of towering signs for All-You-Can-Eat buffets and Girls, Girls and more Girls.
I need to get out of here, now.
After an hour, the billboards dwindle. Desert basins and limestone-shuttered hills flow past my rolled-down window. I'm heading for the area around Gold Butte, 350,000 acres of Mojave Desert overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. It's big enough I doubt we'll ever see each other out there.
This is not the sort of travel story that gives explicit directions. You won't need reviews and promotions to find what you're looking for. There's not a viewpoint you simply must see, a monument you must photograph. All you need is a hint or two, the name of a range or a river, knowledge of an exit and of how to handle yourself in the backcountry, and you'll be fine.
I don't need that Las Vegas map anymore, or any map, really. Instead, from the interstate, I focus on mountains arcing into the distance. This is where you start using your eyes to travel.
East toward the slot-machine town of Mesquite, then a turn off the interstate to head south, crossing a bridge over the shallow Virgin River. The road winds into open desert, one side rising into mountains thinly scruffed with creosote, the other dotted with Joshua trees down to a barren plain below. Ahead lie the sandstone-finned, heavily eroded terrain of Gold Butte. Some of the land here is open to whatever kind of industry you can imagine, but most of it is preserved in one form or another—"areas of critical environmental concern," wilderness study areas. Local citizen groups deserve much of the credit for the lack of mineral operations and ATVs running off-trail.
I'm here because BLM is considering Gold Butte for inclusion in its awkwardly named National Landscape Conservation System, or NLCS. This is an umbrella within the agency protecting its best and largest pieces of land, 887 different sites totaling 27 million acres. Gold Butte would bump that up to 27.3 million.
These properties are known as national conservation lands. The designation is not monolithic: It includes national monuments and conservation areas, official wildernesses, wilderness-quality areas and national scenic and historic trails. These lands comprise a sort of shadow national park system, one largely without the fanfare of signs, visitor centers or guided experiences. NLCS is not much for paved roads or endless, established trailheads. It's more about managing large chunks of public land primarily for conservation. The level of protection varies, and existing uses are often grandfathered in. For example, southwest Colorado's Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, with more than 3,000 archaeological sites, remains open to statutory oil and gas leasing. Even so, national conservation lands are more protected from industrial activities than regular BLM lands.
As a sort of BLM groupie, I've been exploring these places ever since then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt signed the NLCS into existence in 2000. The conservation blueprint he created, protecting the kind of open, empty land I prefer to explore, was a novel idea at the time. Traditionally, the National Park Service had taken over whenever a piece of public land was designated a national monument or national conservation area, and the BLM was not known for its environmental protection skills. But Babbitt feared the BLM might lose some of its treasures, and he saw that the agency had a lot of land in need of protection that otherwise was going to slip through the cracks. He also felt it was high time the agency did a better job managing for more than just grazing and energy.
Gold Butte's greatest treasures aren't extractable. Protection proponents had told me of the place's wilderness quality, how it's big enough to engulf the horizon, to swallow you whole.
Half an hour down a cracked, pothole-riddled two-lane, I pass a worn metal roadside sign. Shot-up and sun-faded, it proclaims, "The most exciting thing I have seen out here is a flat tire and a hot radiator." On another road, there's a sign on decaying pressboard that reads, "Warning: The sting of small scorpions around here is extremely poisonous."
Asphalt turns to dirt, and dirt to rock and sand. The sun sets as I head toward big islands of up-tilted sandstone. I don't have the name of a trailhead, or an especially spectacular place. Here, you can take off in any direction you want, which is how I like it. In a time of GPS coordinates and check-marked bucket lists, I'm heading the other way, a Luddite looking for a good place to lay my head. I park at the edge of a geologic jungle gym, a spot that, from a distance, seems like a fine place to walk out to, set up camp, and then keep walking onward. I quickly hop gear onto my back and lock my rental with a chirp, the last electronic sound I'll hear for a while, I hope.
Outcrops and cliffs rise like the sails of tall ships against a sky still aflame with sunset. I begin, unexpectedly, to see rock art: Simple peckings first, then spirals and curl-headed bighorn sheep and images of humans as spectacular or more so than any panel I have seen on a managed trail. I have walked into a centuries-old nest of Paiute petroglyphs. Apparently, this was an important place a long time ago, too.
Jumping down through smoothly worn bedrock into a shallow canyon, I am surprised again to find rainwater gathered in a hole at the bottom. Canyon tree frogs softly pipe around me. The empty desert I had anticipated has turned out to be much, much more.
Before it's so dark I need a headlamp, I drop camp and scramble up to the rocky prow of a hill. The last light is gone. Bats dart around the hilltop. Vegas is nothing but a faint glow to the southwest. The only sign of civilization you can see is the red-flashing tip of a radio tower 15 miles away.
Three hours from Vegas and I feel like I'm on the moon. I look up through the flicker of bats, catching a satellite drifting through the stars. Now, I can breathe again.
In 2010, I joined then-BLM head Bob Abbey, Bruce Babbitt, other federal officials and citizen land-advocates for a roundtable discussion in Boulder, Colorado, honoring the NLCS's 10th anniversary. Sitting at a long wooden table in the redbrick tower of the University of Colorado's Old Main, we talked about our hopes for BLM's future.
Someone praised the NLCS as a kind of sportsman's Park Service, saying he likes how approachable much of it is, accessible to many kinds of users, not just long-distance wilderness hikers. The BLM manager sitting beside him said she wasn't sure how to treat her national conservation lands. Should she manage them differently from the other lands she oversaw? But she loved the idea. I nervously listened to each, hoping no one could sense my heart pounding. Why had they invited wilderness riffraff like me to this not-quite-ivory tower conclave? Comic relief? When my turn came, I said something like, "Sometimes I pull off the road and I just start walking. This is something you can pretty much do only on BLM."
The table was quiet. I swear Babbitt checked his watch. He is a hero of mine, and I felt nervous speaking in front of him. The former governor of Arizona, he was born there and grew up in a ranch-and-trading-post family surrounded by unbroken public land, some of the Lower 48's wildest country. There, he learned to appreciate unoccupied, untrammeled places. We could at least share that.
I was on the spot, though, so I kept talking—anxiously trying to explain how these public lands are at the core of Western identity and culture. The sense of openness is unique, I said. In the East, it's hard to even find it at all, while out here, it's all around you. If you didn't protect it, I said, I'd have to move to a different country. I need, we need, places beyond the crush of humanity, beyond permits and ceaseless regulations, where you can carry yourself across a landscape as a human being. Swallowed by industry, roads or parking lots, it would be just like everything else.
There were a few polite nods. One man, however, smiled broadly and looked me right in the eye. It was Carl Rountree, head of the NLCS. Afterward, he took me aside and, rather than policy, began talking about places: The deep woods of southwest Oregon, the scaly badlands of Wyoming, the marching saguaro forests of south-central Arizona.
I hadn't expected passion at this level of government. I thought Rountree would be a paper-pusher climbing his way through the agency. But our conversations continued over the next two years as we sent notes back and forth from the national conservation lands we visited. Places like Gold Butte, and Ironwood Forest National Monument near Tucson, with its crowds of saguaros and ragged-top peaks, and the lava flows of Oregon Badlands carpeted in ponderosa pine needles. He told me I'd have to see the verdant mountains of Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument in southwest Oregon, and the wild coastlines with literally tens of thousands of rock-points, sea-stacks and islands inside California Coastal National Monument.
"I just love to get out into these areas and stand in a place where it is so quiet it's just overpowering," Rountree said. "There's this incredible sense I've never been able to quite put into words. These monuments and national conservation areas are being managed to provide opportunities for self-discovery, getting out by yourself without being told what you should experience, where you should be experiencing it."
Rountree mentioned Agua Fria National Monument in central Arizona, then asked, "You've been there, right?"
"Only a little, around the edges," I said, embarrassed I had never gone more than a mile or two into its 70,900 acres.
"You need to talk to Rem Hawes," Rountree said.
Click here to read Part 2.