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Groups blast Bishop over 'gutting' landscape conservation

WASHINGTON — A proposal by Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, would eliminate funding for the National Landscape Conservation System, leading to an outcry by critics who say it guts protection of valuable archaeological resources and turns back the conservation clock.

"This is setting conservation back more than a century if it is successful," said Brian O'Donnell, executive director of the Conservation Lands Foundation based in Durango, Colo.

Bishop's budget amendment was introduced late Tuesday and directs that the Bureau of Land Management cannot allocate any funding for the landscape conservation program impacting about 27 million acres within the agency's purview.

In a teleconference Wednesday, O'Donnell said the lands are those that have been set aside by the U.S. president or Congress as especially valuable because of the vast amount of cultural and natural resources they hold.

Many of the national monuments on the lands, he added, already operate on a shoestring budget and Bishop's amendment would basically strip the ability of BLM to manage those lands.

Bishop's spokeswoman, Melissa Subbotin, said allegations that visitor centers would go unstaffed or protection of cultural resources would be imperiled are "just ridiculous."

"It will in no way impact the day to day management of these programs," Subbotin said. "Again, if anything, the monies used to fund the National Landscape Conservation System will be freed up, allowing the BLM to invest in management and operation of the land and fund on-the-ground improvements."

Areas impacted in Utah would include the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and multiple Wilderness Study areas, O'Donnell pointed out. But Bishop's spokeswoman said those areas will "remain national monuments and Wilderness Study Areas will remain Wilderness Study Areas."

"What we are trying to do is eliminate the duplicative nature" of this program, she said.

Marshall Pendergrass, a guide on the Gunnison River in western Colorado, notes that fishing enthusiasts for years have worked in tandem with the BLM to make improvements along the river, including putting in 30 miles of improved roads to boost access to prime fishing spots.

Pendergrass added that he is worried that the land, if stripped of conservation protections, will be trammeled by the oil and gas industry with leases for extraction development. Again, Subbotin said the measure does not "open up" any new land for development.

"The (system) has created an unnecessary, costly and confusing two-tiered system within the BLM that clouds the BLM's historic mission," Bishop said. "I have yet to see a compelling example of how our nation benefits from adding another expensive layer of bureaucracy to the management of our public lands."

O'Donnell said the amendment could come up for vote in the House of Representatives early Thursday.

'We feel like this one of the largest threats to our public lands we have seen in decades. Obviously we hope it will be defeated in the House."