Wilderness, as the conservationist Aldo Leopold put it, is "the very stuff America is made of." As pioneers settled our continent, their encounter with wilderness shaped our national character. Today, as Americans flock to our national forests, parks and other federal lands, many seek the wilderness, savoring its scenic splendors and a quiet that's increasingly rare.
Hikers and hunters, birders and anglers, families with
kids and those like us, who are closing in on their 80s, find in
wilderness the opportunity to reconnect with pioneer skills and
relive our national history.
This year we celebrate the
40th anniversary of the 1964 Wilderness Act and what it has
accomplished through the decades. Using the authority granted in
this historic conservation law, Congress has designated wilderness
lands in 44 states, ranging from the huge — a single 13
million-acre wilderness in Alaska — to a 5-acre wilderness
island in Florida and the 875,000-acre Olympic National Park
wilderness in Washington. Thus far, we have preserved 106 million
acres, giving the wilderness character of each area the strongest
possible protection: Only Congress can alter an area's enabling
Protecting wilderness areas is not some
top-down federal decision. It is the most "small-d" democratic land
allocation process we've invented. Potential wilderness areas are
identified by on-the-ground agency staff and local people who know
the land best, and then the decision to carry a bill is made by our
elected representatives in Congress, led usually, though not
always, by the local congressional delegation.
this has not been a partisan process. The Wilderness Act was first
supported by a liberal Democrat, Sen. Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota,
and a conservative Republican, Rep. John Saylor of Pennsylvania.
Westerners like Sens. Clinton Anderson, D-N.M., Thomas Kuchel,
R-Calif., and Frank Church, D-Idaho, were in the forefront. Jimmy
Carter signed laws designating more land than any other president,
while Ronald Reagan signed the most wilderness bills — 43
laws designating areas in 31 states — including both of ours
in Washington and Arkansas.
As senators who worked to
protect wilderness areas in our states, we are pleased to be
members of Americans for Wilderness, a nonpartisan committee
helping to highlight the nation's special wild places in this 40th
anniversary year of the Wilderness Act. Presidents Gerald Ford and
Jimmy Carter head the list of honorary members. This diverse group
of more than 100 is chaired by Barbara Kingsolver, Robert Redford
and Christopher Reeve, and includes Maya Lin, Morgan Freeman,
Emmylou Harris, Federico Pena, Bill Bryson, Alice Waters and E.O.
As Congress acts on new wilderness proposals, the
nonpartisan, bottom-up grassroots pattern continues. Take the
proposed Wild Skykomish Wilderness in Washington state, now
awaiting final action in Congress. Championed by two Democratic
senators, this bill has been endorsed by the Bush administration
and unanimously passed the Republican Senate last fall. Washington
representatives of both parties are now working to finish the job
in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Congress is now
actively considering bills to designate similar broadly supported
new wilderness areas in California, Puerto Rico and New Mexico,
with others expected for Virginia, Idaho and Nevada — all
with local congressional support in both "blue" and "red" states.
The American people understand that in Leopold's words,
"the rocks and rills and templed hills of this America are
something more than economic materials." Consider what those polled
told the federal government's National Survey on Recreation and the
Environment: Seventy percent favored protecting more wilderness
areas in their own states, with only 12 percent opposed. The margin
for rural residents was 63 percent favoring more wilderness; 19
Why do Americans feel so strongly about
protecting their wilderness heritage? Why do they rally to preserve
not-yet-protected wilderness when drilling or logging threatens, as
in New Mexico's Otero Mesa, Montana's Rocky Mountain Front, or the
unspoiled remnants of Arctic Alaska? The federal government's
polling shows that Americans value wilderness not only for
recreational pursuits but also for scenic beauty, watershed
protection, habitat for wildlife and more.
Above all, we
think — and the polling confirms — that a key factor in
why Americans so overwhelmingly favor protecting more wilderness is
its legacy value. That is, the deeply felt, widely shared sense of
obligation to our children, grandchildren and all future
generations to leave these areas just as they are so that others
will also know wilderness in their time.