Energy & Environment

The unfinished business of protecting wild places

With a major election behind us, policymakers, pundits and the public will be looking for evidence that Congress and the White House can move forward on issues of importance to a majority of Americans. With that in mind, it’s safe to say that as a nation we have no firmer common ground than our literal common ground — the lands we cherish for hunting, fishing, hiking and camping. For decades, presidents and members of Congress from both parties have held protection of these wild places as an honorable duty. Now should be no exception.

For its part, Congress has the opportunity to safeguard some of our rapidly vanishing wilderness. Through the Wilderness Act, which this year celebrates its 50th anniversary, lawmakers have the authority to preserve the nation’s most biologically diverse federal lands. Currently, more than two dozen bills, many of them with bipartisan sponsorship, await action by either the House or Senate.

{mosads}If enacted, these legislative proposals would permanently protect some of the country’s last wild and scenic landscapes, including the craggy peaks and glacier-carved valleys of Washington state’s Alpine Lakes, old-growth and roadless forests in Oregon’s Klamath-Siskiyou region, and Idaho’s magnificent Boulder-White Clouds, the largest intact, unprotected landscape in the Lower 48 states.

Traditionally, bipartisanship has ruled in the great outdoors. President Reagan worked with a Democratic majority in the House and a Republican majority in the Senate to pass and sign 43 bills, yielding some 10 million acres of wilderness areas in 27 states, more than in any other presidential administration.

Beyond signing wilderness legislation, President Obama can also use the authority of the presidency, under the Antiquities Act, to unilaterally protect “objects of historic and scientific interest.” The Antiquities Act has been used more than 100 times by presidents from both sides of the aisle to set aside some of the nation’s most valuable ecological, cultural and historical places. It was signed into law in 1906 with the support of President Theodore Roosevelt, who most famously used it to shield the Grand Canyon from mining and other development.

In 2006, George W. Bush became the first president to use the Antiquities Act to protect areas in the ocean by designating the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. In 2009, he established two others: the Marianas Trench, which is the deepest ocean trench in the world, and the Pacific Remote Islands National Marine Monument, a large area in the central Pacific Ocean that was recently tripled in size by President Obama.

The president’s most recent exercise of the Antiquities Act was the designation of the 350,000-acre San Gabriel Mountains National Monument in Southern California. This bestowal of national monument status was years in the making, with local residents, including business leaders, conservationists and preservation advocates encouraging lawmakers to protect a landscape that naturalist John Muir once labeled as “pure and untamable as the sea.” The area, which features stands of old-growth trees, alpine peaks, and crystalline streams, is home to rare and endangered species, including the California condor and Nelson’s bighorn sheep.

The area encompassed by the San Gabriel Mountains National monument also serves as an important community resource, providing roughly one-third of the drinking water for Los Angeles County and offering the only large-scale open space for many in the nation’s second-largest city who have little access to parks and other places of recreation.

Just as President Reagan helped set a record for wilderness legislation signed, President Clinton proclaimed the most monuments — 21 sites in all. Congress and the White House should seize upon this historical tradition of bipartisan commitment to protect some of America’s first — and last — wild places, which form our true common ground.

Reichert heads the environment program at the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Tags Antiquities Act Bipartisanship National Monument wilderness Wilderness Act

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