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New 'monuments' to conservation

Interior Secretary Babbitt leads a major upgrade in protection for the landscapes of the West.

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Taking some of the boldest steps on conservation since the days of President Theodore Roosevelt and the creation of the National Park System, the federal government is today moving forward with a plan to keep vast expanses of public land free of development.

The new system, tentatively called the National Landscape Monuments, represents a substantial - and controversial - shift in US policy. Historically, the brightest jewels of America's landscape have been governed by the Park Service, while other "leftovers" have been left open to mining, logging, and drilling. Now, many of the sweeping deserts and sandstone buttes not contained within national parks will be afforded a new level of protection.

For Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt - perhaps the most unabashedly conservationist secretary in the agency's history - the plan represents a watermark achievement. And for President Clinton, entering an executive coda, it could become one of his longest-lasting legacies.

"The fact is that the West is filling up," said Mr. Babbitt, announcing the program here last week. "The West is changing, and now there's a sense of urgency. We're saying, 'What is it we want to see 50 to 100 years from now?' "

The National Landscape Monuments will operate within the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which administers some 264 million acres of federal lands, mostly in the West. Although the BLM will continue to manage lands for resource development, under the new system, the agency will also oversee "conservation areas," which allow recreation and some hunting and grazing - but prohibit mining, drilling, and logging.

Babbitt's stewardship agenda, while unprecedented, mirrors public sentiments, says Jan Laitos, a natural-resource law professor at the University of Denver. Citizens today place a premium on wilderness and recreation, and federal policy had to reflect that.

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