Opinion

America's Soul Stays in Wild

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Forty years ago this week, Americans celebrated one of the nation's great bipartisan environmental achievements of the 20th century when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act. Since that day in September 1964, more than 100 million acres of some of the country's most beautiful wilderness have been protected, an area roughly the size of California.

The great legacy of this legislation is that throughout the nation there are wild places where Americans go to hunt and fish, hike, camp or simply to enjoy nature in ways that are no longer possible where the majority of us live and work. Although there are not enough of these places - less than 5 percent of the wilderness that once defined the American landscape - they are a treasured part of the natural heritage that has shaped our character, and that continues to serve as a living link between our past and our future.

Four decades ago, the great majority of Americans shared President Johnson's belief that "we must leave (future generations) a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning, not just after we got through with it." That sentiment has changed little in the intervening years. Today, almost 70 percent of Americans support protecting additional wilderness in the states where they live.

Yet how difficult a struggle it continues to be. Virtually every piece of the nation's wilderness system has been hard fought over by those who seek its protection and those who would profit from its exploitation. Most Americans, particularly those local citizens who have petitioned their congressional representatives over the years to protect places that are special to them, understand that the nation needs to benefit from its resources. They also understand that wilderness is a resource that can offer its benefits only if left undisturbed.

In a society where it is all too expedient to reduce complex issues into simple shades of black and white, those who believe there is a value in preserving the nation's great natural beauty are all too often labeled anti-development.

Most of us are not that. We are Americans who enjoy many of the products and services that technology has made possible. We watch television and drive cars, go to the shopping mall and eat hamburgers at McDonald's. We are Republicans and Democrats, rich and poor, Christian, Jew and Muslim, African-American, Hispanic and Caucasian. And one of the many reasons we care about protecting what remains of America's wild places is not simply because they are beautiful, or because they contain parts of the natural world that we can no longer experience anywhere else, but also because they remind us of our common heritage.

These days, with the nation divided over so many things, it is easy to forget that, not so long ago, wilderness protection was not seen as predominantly a Republican or a Democratic issue, but as a valuable legacy for both parties. While Jimmy Carter can claim the largest amount of wilderness (66 million acres) signed into law by any single administration, Ronald Reagan signed more wilderness bills (43) than any other president.

Protecting what remains of the nation's unspoiled places is a distinctly popular sentiment not simply because Americans value these wild places in their own right, but also because they remind us that however else we may be different, these places belong to no one and everyone at the same time, and are there to be enjoyed by all of us no matter how much money, influence or status we have. And that is an inherently democratic virtue that no political party should ignore.

This op-ed article was also published in the following newspapers: Tulsa World (Sept. 5, 2004), The Omaha World Herald (Sept. 4, 2004), Buffalo News (Sept. 3, 2004), The Oregonian (Sept. 3, 2004), The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, WA) (Aug. 31, 2004).