National Landscape Conservation System
The National Landscape Conservation System, established by the Bureau of Land Management in 2000, contains some of the West's most spectacular landscapes. Covering an area as big as Tennessee, the system of 850 National Monuments, Wilderness Areas, Wild and Scenic Rivers and other lands is now being formally protected by law. On March 30, 2009, President Obama signed the Omnibus Public Land Management Act, the largest wilderness conservation bill in 15 years. It included a provision to solidify the protection of the National Landscape Conservation System, highlighted here, as well as many other wilderness conservation projects.
Unlike national parks, these lands are as close to truly wild as it gets. Few campsites and fewer roads make these areas rare oases as development transforms the American landscape.
What follows is a photographic tour of seven of the most interesting, unique and dramatic landscapes in the new American wilderness.
Sonoran Desert National Monument
The 761-square-mile Sonoran Desert National Monument in southern Arizona includes three mountain ranges, desert valleys and the most biologically rich desert in North America.
Extensive saguaro cactus forests, rugged foot and horse trails, and the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail are among the highlights for visitors. (Captain of Spain's Royal Presidio at Tubac, Juan Bautista de Anza led a 2,700-mile journey to the San Francisco Bay in 1775, a notable moment in story of European colonization of North America.)
Opportunities to use the land are extensive, but limited to passive recreation like hiking, backpacking, stargazing, camping, hunting, motor touring, sightseeing, photography and horseback riding.
Las Cienegas National Conservation Area
The 70-square-mile Las Cienegas National Conservation Area is an icon for Western film buffs, set amid the sprawling megalopolis of Tucson and Phoenix. John Wayne, Barbara Stanwick, Charlton Heston, Paul Newman, Lee Marvin, Kirk Douglas, William Holden, Burt Lancaster, Shelley Winters, Jennifer Jones, Steve McQueen, Gregory Peck, Spencer Tracy, Jimmy Stewart and others have, according to the Bureau of Land Management, made such classic films as Red River, Duel in the Sun, Hombre, Winchester 73, The Big Country and others on or near the Empire Ranch, a working ranch that makes up part of the land.
With 60 types of mammals, 230 birds, 43 reptiles and amphibians and even three native fish species calling Cienegas home, there's more to the landscape than moviemaking history.
Cienegas is open to the public for wildlife viewing, bird watching, primitive camping, picnicking, hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, historic site, hunting, photography and scenic drives.
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
Twice the size of Rhode Island, the 3,000-square-mile Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah has a bold, rugged and colorful topography marked by plateaus and river valleys and wind-carved rock cliffs. It is one of the dramatic landscapes recently protected by Congress and President Obama.
So remote that it was the last place in the continental United States to be mapped, it has yielded intriguing evidence of early civilization to archaeologists, of prehistoric wildlife in past eras to paleontologists and of the distant origins of the Earth itself to geologists.
Nonscientists, of course, can enjoy the wonders of the National Monument by hiking, backpacking, camping, mountain biking, horseback riding, using off-road vehicles or river-running.
Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail
The 2,650-mile Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail stretches from the Mexican border to the Canadian border, through stunningly beautiful terrain in California, Oregon and Washington.
Beauty comes in many forms on this "jewel" of a trail, as the Forest Service describes it.
Glacier-carved valleys, rocky slopes of the Sierra Nevada, volcanic peaks, and Cascade Range glaciers are among the many highlights.
Headwaters Forest Reserve National Conservation Area
At just 11 square miles, the Headwaters Forest Reserve National Conservation Area in northern California could never be characterized as small.
"This untouched redwood grove near Fortuna contains the world's most spectacular ancient trees," as the Wilderness Society describes it. "Some are 300 feet high and 2,200 years old."
Visitors are allowed only to hike an old 5.5-mile logging road into the old growth forest. That's enough. Awe isn't officially listed as a day use, but it's part and parcel with this forest.
Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail
The Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail stretches through 11 states along the Missouri and Columbia Rivers, following the path that the iconic American explorers took 200 years ago.
Their search for a water route to the Pacific Ocean produced an early record of the human inhabitants, wildlife and natural scenery throughout the American landscape, and remains an invaluable resource for historians and students of natural history and adventuring.
That sense of adventure is still a part of the trail.
Deschutes National Wild and Scenic River
The Deschutes River is protected by the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.
The Lower Deschutes River canyon, in Oregon, has been called "a masterpiece of nature."
Fishing, camping, hiking, kayaking and whitewater rafting are among the favorite reasons to visit. And, of course, the scenery.