Coming Together to Preserve Our Lands

Coming Together to Preserve Our Lands

The lump of coal in every American's stocking this holiday season is this: we lose four acres of open space each minute in this country, a government agency announced. That's 6,000 acres a day of meadows turned into housing tracts, farm fields in Iowa and Nebraska paved into parking lots, ranches transformed into shopping malls on the outskirts of Boise and Bozeman, and pine forests in Alabama and Georgia chopped down.

For the year just about to end, a total of 2,190,000 acres succumbed to development, an area larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined, lost forever.

Like the Grinch who stole Christmas from the Whos down in Whoville, developers with hearts two sizes too small have been taking from the rest of us much of America's open spaces at a startling rate. This certainly was not a wish most Americans listed in their letters to Santa. Almost three-quarters of us identify ourselves as conservationists who want to pass along a country in better shape than we found it. It's because of our children that we want to see things done to save a lasting legacy of wilderness.

We have good tidings to share for 2008, however. The coming year could really be a wild one. Congress could pass, and the president could sign, a sleigh-full of laws to protect the wide open spaces on publicly owned land as part of the National Wilderness Preservation System. Here are three reasons why.

First, the loss of open space is not an abstract matter. People in communities across the country see these changes happen right in front of their eyes. Locally, they are banding together with others who care about the quality of life and the attributes that drew them to their towns and cities in the first place. They identify the places that are important to them, and ask that their city councils and county commissioners support legal protection for those places. Those councilors and commissioners then pass resolutions that have members of Congress from those districts -- both Republicans and Democrats alike -- sitting up and taking notice and taking action.

So in Idaho, Rep. Mike Simpson, a conservative Republican, introduces a legislative package for the central part of the state that protects 300,000 acres of wilderness in the Boulder and White Cloud Mountains. Sen. Mike Crapo, another conservative Republican, has sponsored a comprehensive bill that would safeguard 500,000 acres of wilderness in the southwestern corner of the state, a place called Owyhee and Bruneau Canyon lands as spectacular as any national park.

Driven by strong local support from small businesses, chambers of commerce, and Realtors, similar measures are percolating from the ground up in nearly every Western state and some in the East, as well. A bill for Virginia's valleys and ridges passed the House of Representatives, backed by local hunters and fishers, while another is being prepared for West Virginia. The timber industry is working with conservationists for proposals for wilderness protection in Montana and Washington that could become legislation next year. Bills to protect our common ground in Arizona, California, Colorado, and New Mexico are also on the move. The second piece of good tidings, then, is that members of Congress, on all sides of the political spectrum, are acting as true public servants and carrying out the wishes of their constituents.

The third piece of good news, evidence that 2008 could be a wild one, can be found in the numbers. Viable wilderness legislation currently under consideration by this 110th Congress totals 1,800,000 acres -- almost as much as we're losing each year to development. The bills encompassing this acreage, lands that you and I and every American own, stand a very good chance of being enacted into law. And we expect additional wilderness bills to be considered by Congress, and those may become law, too.

The trend is certainly in the right direction. Last Congress, a million acres were added to the National Wilderness Preservation System. By the end of next year, Americans could see double that amount banked away. That's a pretty sizeable gift, not only for us today, but for those who will follow.

We're always going to see land go by the wayside for various kinds of development. But it behooves us to balance the scales. For our children, and their children, we should have the fortitude and foresight to save at least as much from destruction -- if not a lot more. We should leave them something better than the lump of coal we're getting this year.