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BLM Hiking: Land of Opportunity

If you look beyond the occasional cow, you'll find the BLM has lots of ruggedly beautiful land to offer. No mining, no oil rigs, just lots of solitude.

Let’s get the tired old joke out of the way up front. Q: What does BLM stand for? A: Bureau of Livestock and Mining. It’s a gasser, ain’t it?

Now we can move on to more serious matters, like tundra, old-growth forest, lava beds, prehistoric petroglyphs, the works! And solitude, too-lots of it, with no labyrinthine permitting process to get in the way of your good times.

This isn’t your father’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Granted, there are strip mines, barbed wire and cows, oil wells, and 4WDs to be found on the agency’s 264 million acres, but bureau officials are trying to shake the old-joke image, and in recent years have begun warming up to recreational users, including hikers. Budgets for recreation and wilderness management have increased, and last year Beyond the National Parks: A Recreational Guide to Public Lands in the West (Smithsonian Institution Press; 800-782-4612; $19.95) was released. The 400-page guidebook highlights adventure to be had on BLM lands.

“I don’t think it’s just a sell job,” explains Fran Hunt, director of the BLM program at The Wilderness Society. “BLM people are genuinely committed to improving the track record on recreation.”

Consider the red carpet rolled out. But the key to having a great time on what Hunt calls the nation’s “most overlooked and under-appreciated land” is to know where to go. The agency’s holdings span 11 western states plus Alaska-more than five times the acreage of our national parks-and most of it, says Hunt, “isn’t signed or in guidebooks. You have to do some digging” to find great backpacking locales.

To help you get started, I spoke to wilderness advocates and BLM field staff, and came up with a list of prime hiking destinations that are diverse, as well as relatively free from mining, drilling, and off-roading. Most are designated wilderness study areas that need the support of determined hikers if they’re ever to be elevated to full-blown, federally protected wilderness areas. Keep in mind that the areas listed, like most BLM land, are remote, so safety and self-reliance should be your prime concerns. Map and compass skills and a sense of adventure are also good things to carry along. Where guidebooks and maps are lacking, the best sources of information are local land managers, conservationists, and outfitters.

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