President Barack Obama recently designated nearly half a million acres in southern New Mexico as the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument, a move that was applauded by a wide swath of New Mexicans, including Hispanic leaders, veterans, sportsmen and the faith community. But for the rest of the country it might have signaled something even better — that coming on the heels of bipartisan congressional legislation to preserve 32,500 acres of wilderness in Michigan, we may have rediscovered an issue on which Democrats and Republicans can agree.
For Americans who value public lands, whether for hunting, fishing, hiking or just scenic viewing, these have been troubling times. Although we are approaching the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, until recently it’s been difficult for a legislator from either party to push a wilderness bill through Congress.
It wasn’t always like this. Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle championed the Wilderness Act of 1964, which was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson. For decades, chief executives and congressional leaders embraced the law, with President Ronald Reagan having an especially large impact. Working most of the time with a Republican-controlled Senate and a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives, Reagan signed 43 bills designating more than 10 million acres of wilderness in 27 states — more pieces of such legislation than any other president. And 16 presidents have used the Antiquities Act to help ensure the continued protection of the nation’s wild treasures
There’s no reason to believe that prior administrations and congressional leaders have done all that needs doing. After all, the Wilderness Act and Antiquities Act haven’t become irrelevant any more than the laws safeguarding our air and drinking water are suddenly no longer needed. Preserving our last unspoiled places, such as the Rocky Mountain Front in Montana, Tennessee’s Cherokee National Forest, Idaho’s Boulder-White Clouds, and the Wild Olympics in Washington state, will allow our children and grandchildren to explore and enjoy these areas as they have always been — great places to hike, hunt, camp and fish.
So while the recent actions by the president and Congress are heartening, much more needs to be done. Every day, we lose 6,000 American acres to development, an accumulated loss of 2.2 million acres in a year, which eclipses the approximately half million acres the president and Congress have shielded in the past 12 months. We’re still at risk of losing critical areas that should be conserved.
That loss is not just environmental; it’s economic. Studies show that protected public lands such as national monuments and wilderness provide a boost to local pocketbooks. The new Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument, for example, is expected to bring in $7.4 million in additional economic activity, and to double the number of jobs supported by outdoor recreation and tourism in the region. The Río Grande del Norte National Monument, designated last year in President Obama’s other significant use of the Antiquities Act, drew 50,000 visitors in 2013 — 40 percent more than came before it was “put on the map.”
More than two dozen wilderness bills are now pending before Congress. At the same time, other communities across the country are looking to the president to preserve their wild places. Conservation has long been a bipartisan issue, and must be so again. Before more of these areas vanish, we need to ask our leaders and ourselves how we can act, together, to save America’s natural treasures.
Mike Matz is U.S. public lands director at the Pew Charitable Trusts. Readers may write to him at: Pew Environment Group, 901 E Street NW, Washington, D.C. 20004; email: [email protected]