Monday, September 14, 2009

Preservationist: More must be done to save lands

Public lands protected by legal designations such as "national monument" aren't necessarily fully protected, a recognized conservation expert said Thursday in Great Falls.

"Satan never sleeps," said Edward M. Norton, a senior environmental adviser to TPG Capital, L.P., a private equity firm in San Francisco. "Somebody always has a bad idea and wants to do something."

Norton was the keynote speaker Thursday at the 7th Annual Statewide Preservation Workshop sponsored by the Montana Preservation Alliance, the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation and the Great Falls-Cascade County Historic Preservation Commission.

Norton, 67, spent three decades working to protect areas from development for groups such as the National Trust for Historic Preservation and The Wilderness Society.

He currently is chairman of the National Conservation System Foundation. The foundation is designed to protect, restore and expand National Landscape Conservation System Lands, a class of 27 million acres managed by the federal Bureau of Land Management.

The system was initiated under the watch of Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt in the late 1990s. Norton called it the "last of the great land conservation systems of the United States" and said it would be up to groups such as the Friends of the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument in Montana to protect these places.

"They're not protected unless there's somebody there watching out for their protection," Norton said.

It is a misperception that laws lead to protection of land, Norton said. In fact, it is local organizations and residents that "grind it out year after year" pressing for preservation who truly protects land, he said.

Even after laws are enacted, watchdogs need to "ride herd" on land managers who write the plans managing the protected areas, Norton said.

Though threats exist, Norton said he is impressed with land protections in the United States, as well as with how the country explains the historical and cultural context of special places. He pointed to the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center in Great Falls as an example of the type of education about areas provided in the U.S. that is absent in countries such as China and Indonesia.

The conference drew about 75 people, including public land managers, farmers, ranchers and conservationists, said Chere Jiusto, executive director of the Montana Preservation Alliance.

The theme of this year's conference was "Preserving Montana's Signature Landscapes."

Jiusto said the state of Montana was the only one in the nation to set aside $4 million in federal stimulus funding for preservation grants.

Gloria Flora, the former supervisor of the Lewis and Clark National Forest, who is now the director of Sustainable Obtainable Solutions, shared the keynote address with Norton.

When she was forest supervisor, Flora made the decision to ban natural gas and oil exploration on the Rocky Mountain Front, one of Montana's premier large landscapes.

Places such as the Front have ecological values that exceed what any human can put on the landscape, said Flora, recalling that developers with "glossy brochures" tried to convince the U.S. Forest Service to allow development on the Front.

"Absolutely incredible landscape," she said.

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