In 1964, for example, a year of remarkable tumult, there were bitterly fought struggles over civil rights measures. Yet that September, after a poisonous summer, the Wilderness Protection Act passed by nearly unanimous vote.
Designed to "secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource," the Wilderness Act was a product of impressive bipartisan cooperation — a multi-year effort championed by Sen. Hubert Humphrey (D-Min.) and Rep. John Saylor (R-Pa.). With its enactment the United States became the first nation in the world to create a system to define and designate wilderness areas by law.
Since then, every Congress since 1966 has used its legislative authority to help protect wild places throughout the United States. Even in the 1980s, after the game changing “Reagan revolution,” leaders of both parties came together around public lands. The differences between Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) and Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill (D-Mass.) on a host of policy issues, both foreign and domestic, were legion. Nevertheless, leaders in Congress worked with President Reagan to enact 43 bills, designating more than 10 million acres of wilderness areas in 27 different states.
Despite this progress, only 2.5 percent of all federal public land outside of the state of Alaska is permanently protected as wilderness. Yet the benefits of preserving these unspoiled places are extraordinary. Not only do they help improve air and water quality for countless communities, they also provide an important source of recreation, jobs and revenue in places that have little else in the way of income earning activities. According to the Outdoor Industry Association, wilderness areas are responsible for over 2.1 million jobs and more than $236 billion in related consumer spending, much of it in small rural communities.
Today, after two years of inaction, at least 25 wilderness bills await passage by Congress. Added together, these bipartisan proposals could protect more than two million acres of ancient forests, colorful canyons, and sagebrush deserts across 11 states. They include provisions to safeguard stunning places like Oregon’s Cathedral Rock, Tennessee's Cherokee National Forest, New Mexico’s Rio Grande Gorge, and the Sleeping Bear Dunes along Lake Michigan. But time is running out.
Despite the negative ads and other byproducts of a tough election, the American people expect Republicans and Democrats in Congress to find areas of agreement in the next few weeks. Too often, pressing issues of national policy are portrayed almost like sporting events — competitions where one side takes all. But governing is about more than scoring political points. As in years past, the collection of currently pending wilderness proposals provides a remarkable opportunity for congressional leaders from both parties to rebuild the tradition of bipartisan cooperation — while protecting some of our nation's most important natural treasures.
Reichert is managing director of the Pew Environment Group.