Where the Wild Things Aren't

Forty years ago today, President Lyndon Johnson enacted one of the most forward-looking environmental laws in human history. By signing the 1964 Wilderness Act and creating the National Wilderness Preservation System, Johnson endorsed a uniquely American philosophy: America's wild lands, untrammeled by industry or machinery – yet open to the enjoyment of all citizens – possess special values that merit permanent protection for their own sake.

The decision to preserve wild lands was without precedent anywhere in the world. It symbolized Americans' deep pride in our greatest national asset – our public lands. The act also inspired an extended period of reflection among the nation's historians, who saw the good in a people who collectively could act beyond the immediate desires of the present and protect something for those who came after them:

In wilderness I sense the miracle of life, and behind it our scientific accomplishments fade to trivia. – Charles A. Lindbergh, LIFE magazine, 22 December 1967
Since the law's signing, over 105 million acres of citizen-owned lands have been protected as Wilderness Areas, from the towering summits of the Rocky Mountains, to the pristine forests of the Pacific Northwest, to the biologically rich swamps of Florida.

Another 200 million acres of federal public lands may be suitable for Wilderness designation – lands with equally stunning vistas, biological diversity and a measure of the quiet and solitude that is rapidly disappearing as more private lands become developed.

Sadly, with the arrival of the Bush administration, the nation's remaining wild lands are instead now targeted for development by the oil, gas, timber and mining industries.

By definition, Wilderness Areas are off-limits to industrial use, and so have a natural enemy in the extractive industries. When President Bush came to power in 2000, he stacked his cabinet and federal agencies with industry lobbyists who spent their careers fighting the protection of wild lands.

Interior Secretary Gale Norton cut her teeth learning legal tricks from her infamous predecessor and mentor, Reagan Interior Secretary James Watt – a man who actually advocated selling off our National Parks.

Commerce Secretary Don Evans, a lifelong oil and gas man, headed a methane company that is aggressively fighting wilderness designation in the Rockies. Mark Rey, Under Secretary of Agriculture for Environment and Natural Resources, made his living as a top lobbyist for the timber industry before gaining oversight of the National Forest system.

This team of industry handmaidens quickly went to work dismantling the system that allows for wilderness preservation. The first major volley was an under-cover-of-night decision by Secretary Norton to settle a controversial lawsuit with then-Utah Governor Mike Leavitt (now chief of the Environmental Protection Agency).

The "Norton-no-more-wilderness-settlement," as it's called, established that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management may not legally protect wilderness-quality lands – ever. Norton's goal is to open tens of millions of acres of roadless and wild public lands throughout the West to oil and gas drilling.

Similarly, this summer, Under Secretary Rey killed the Clinton-era "Roadless Area Conservation Rule," which had allowed the Forest Service to inventory and preserve wild forest lands while they await a decision from Congress over formal wilderness designation.

The roadless rule was the result of thousands of hours of public hearings. It generated hundreds of thousands of comments in favor of its enactment – the most popular environmental decision of the last decade. Rey's reversal opened millions of acres of the public's forests to timber cutting, mining, and oil and gas drilling. Indeed, just last week, the Forest Service issued oil and gas leases in an inventoried roadless area south of Jackson Hole, Wyoming – Vice President Cheney's home away from home.

While the wilderness characteristics President Bush aims to sacrifice are worthy of preservation on their own merits, there is more at stake. Many cities in the West increasingly rely on the water that flows from wilderness areas; some of the cleanest water in the nation originates there.

Similarly, outdoor recreation, hunting, fishing and wildlife viewing are multi-billion dollar industries that depend primarily on protected public lands. These industries have spoken out against Bush's policies, but their pleas have fallen on deaf ears.

Unless the president can be convinced to reverse course, these lands – and the legal basis of the American land ethic – may be lost forever.

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