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Energy and Environment
KUNR Public Radio is a proud partner in the Mountain West News Bureau, a partnership of public media stations that serve Nevada, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico and Wyoming. The mission is to tell stories about the people, places and issues of the Mountain West.

Analysis of recent federal land protections shows Western states are all over the map

A panoramic view of Wyoming's Red Desert, which consists of sand dunes, canyons and mountains. A backpacker can be seen hiking through brush in the foreground.
Matthew Cuzzocreo
Wyoming Wilderness Association
A backpacker, left, hikes through Wyoming's Red Desert. The half-million-acre public land – consisting of sand dunes, badlands and canyons – does not currently have permanent protections.

A new report shows that Western states vary widely in how much federal public lands within their borders have been protected from extractive uses over the last decade – with some surprising discrepancies.

The Center for Western Priorities analyzed federal acreage conserved at national parks, monuments, wildlife refuges, or national conservation areas, and found that Utah and New Mexico rank second and third, trailing only California.

Since 2011, Utah has seen more than 2.2 million acres protected – including Bears Ears National Monument, most notably. Nearly 1.3 million acres of public lands have received protections in New Mexico, which includes the designation of White Sands National Park.

Nevada ranks fourth at about 801,000 acres. The decade prior, between 2000 and 2010, the Silver State led the West at 3.4 million acres. That included the 2002 designation of more than 450,000 acres of wilderness in Clark County, near Las Vegas.

Meanwhile, in Wyoming, not a single acre of federal public lands have received additional protections since 2009. That’s largely a function of the state's pro-extraction congressional delegation, said Khale Century Reno, executive director of the Wyoming Wilderness Association.

“Quite simply, we don’t have any champions in Congress that are willing to wave that wilderness flag,” she said.

The same goes for Arizona. The state has protected less acreage than the footprint of the Phoenix Airport over the past 10 years. Colorado hasn’t done much better, conserving what amounts to less than 3% of the Denver metro area, despite a number of locally supported proposals including the CORE Act currently before Congress, which would protect about 400,000 acres.

The report ranks Montana and Idaho fifth and seventh, respectively, among Western states.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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