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Happy Anniversary to The Wilderness Act

As an environmentalist, the third of September is always a special day for me as it marks the anniversary of one of the most unusual, extraordinary, and far-reaching conservation bills ever passed by Congress. The Wilderness Act’s importance to our hemisphere’s ecological health, as well as our nation’s collective nervous system, grows more apparent every year.

As Californians we’re proud of our state’s abundance of natural wonders, from the Redwood forests in the north to our expansive deserts and Peninsular ranges in the south. And as environmentalists and conservationists, we’re determined to honor, defend, and expand our state’s safeguarding of special, wild places and habitat.

Overloved as they are, Yosemite, Death Valley, and Joshua Tree have justifiably earned their place among California’s most spectacular landscapes. But less-visited National Parks like Lassen Peak or the Channel Islands or Pinnacles; state parks like Henry W. Coe or Montaña de Oro or Anza-Borrego; and ecosystem-wide Wilderness areas like the Ventana, Hoover, Trinity Alps, Mokelumne – or the Hauser or Agua Tibia wilderness areas here in San Diego County – are just as vital to our state’s environmental health and well-being as our “marquee” outdoor locales.

As spelled out in the National Wilderness Preservation System in the landmark 1964 Wilderness Act, which celebrates its 57th birthday today, wilderness areas are places “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

That humans in the 20th Century sought to legislate such humility into law is a testament to the impact wild places have on the human spirit, but it also reflects a mature understanding of the interconnectedness of life on this planet that came from an earlier generation of conservation leaders.

Even in the 19th Century, before Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir’s most influential years, the nation was in the midst of absorbing the works of giants like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. The spirit of interconnected preservation and renewal espoused in their work manifested itself in the form of observances like the first Arbor Day in 1872.

Today, one of the best ways to impress upon our neighbors the need to expand our special places and set aside public lands with greater levels of protection is by taking our friends and family on outings to threatened spaces. Put their boots on the ground so they can see for themselves and relay to those they know what’s at stake.

And while it’s a relief that the administration that put over 20 National Monuments through an unprecedented process of reconsideration in 2017 is gone (resulting in drastic, destructive cuts to Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears National Monuments that have yet to be undone by the Biden administration), the anti-environmentalism that enabled the Trump administration’s despicable behavior remains.

Unfortunately, on this anniversary of the Wilderness Act, it seems to be less a matter of preserving public land and protecting wildlife than defending what previous generations have worked so hard to preserve.

While Democrats have enough of a majority in Congress to prevent bad policy from becoming law, we’re still seeing a push to roll back long-standing, effective conservation policy, including bills to undo Wilderness protections, privatize National Parks, exploit “locked up” gas and timber resources, and “give” federal lands “back” to be managed by states. It’s as though our modern conservation matrix simply fell out of the sky, when in fact our current regulations came about in reaction to the very same, specific attempts to destroy or undo wild places that we’ve seen since the rise of the Tea Party in 2009.

From Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas to Congressman Rob Bishop of Utah to the right-wing media machine, there is a dangerous, reckless movement to exploit sagebrush rebellion movements in the west – like the Bundy family’s armed standoff with federal officials in 2014 in Nevada, and their later seizure and armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon in 2016 – and simultaneously do the bidding of Big Oil and Big Gas by weakening policy like the 1970 National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) and 1973  Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Additional right-wing legislative proposals seek to:

  • Dissolve the 1906 Antiquities Act, which is the mechanism by which National Parks like the Grand Canyon, Grand Teton, Olympic, and Joshua Tree were first preserved at the federal level.
  • Force National Parks to take on the character of amusement parks or theme parks, where profit motive and selling beer, souvenirs, and enabling destructive recreation becomes the key purpose for parks’ existence, versus preservation and conservation.
  • Dismantle funding for conservation programs that benefit communities, like the movement several years ago that led to the deliberate failure to renew the 1964 Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). While the fund was eventually restored by Congress, it was done so on a far more limited basis with less money being collected from offshore oil and gas leases.
  • Open our federally protected forests and watersheds, typically managed by the U.S. Forest Service and BLM, to development. The precursor of the U.S. Forest Service, the nation’s “forest preserves” were initially established by President Benjamin Harrison in 1897 for the specific purpose of ending rampant exploitation and destruction of western lands that were occurring at an unsustainable, destructive rate in the west at the time, typically in the vacuum of any kind of local, enforceable law.
  • Transfer our bounty of shared public lands to states so they can be sold off for mining, logging, or oil and gas drilling – despite the fact states have neither the mechanisms in place nor money to manage such vast swaths of public land, and that to do so would violate numerous federal regulations.

Without constant vigilance, public land foes in Congress will undo years of protections for America’s wild places by whatever means necessary – shifting the climate argument away from oil and gas, using wildfire as an excuse for salvage logging, etc. – thereby facilitating efforts by resource extractors to gain access to prime recreational lands and shut hikers, campers, hunters, anglers, and horseback riders out.

So on this 57th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, and all the days after, consider a pilgrimage to enjoy our state’s remarkable, often ancient trees, like the Giant Sequoias of the Sierra Nevada, the iconic Redwoods of the North Coast, or the gnarled, high-altitude, windblown Bristlecone pines of the White Mountains high above the Owens Valley. Some Bristlecone pines, growing in small, spread-out groves, are over 5,000 years old and the oldest living things found anywhere on the planet. Similar groves of “younger” Bristlecone can be found closer to home in the higher elevations of the San Gabriel range.

Whether wandering a Redwood grove or simply enjoying a quiet hike among the old Jeffrey and Lodgepole pines in the Laguna Mountains or Palomar range, consider the volume of habitat, ecosystems, and species our nation has preserved over the last 120 years – and how easily that conservation bounty can be squandered by the same forces of hate, nihilism, and a rejection of a shared reality that facilitated the Jan. 6th insurrection.

As the fight over the Roadless Rule during the Bush administration made clear 20 years ago, so many of our nation’s conservation laws remain in place at the discretion of the president. Like a microcosm of the larger environmental portfolio, how a candidate addresses questions of conservation and habitat adds insight into how they will govern on climate change, rising sea levels, pipelines, wildlife, and exacerbating or ending pollution of our air and water.

Let us recall that mature understanding of the interconnectedness of life that was so well understood by legislators in 1964, and ensure that the strides we’ve made as a nation in protecting our forests, rivers, wildlife, and watersheds isn’t squandered by the politics of short-term gain at any cost.

LBJ signing the Wilderness Act into law on Sept. 3, 1964.