Bush Team Reversing Wilderness Act's 40-Year Success
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, President 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:
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. 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 life-long oil and gas man, headed a methane company that is aggressively fighting wilderness designation in the Rockies. Mark Rey, Undersecretary 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.
Similarly, this summer, Undersecretary 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 clean 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. Outdoorsmen and Hunter voting for Bush will soon have to hunt in their own backyard, as everything else will be owned by the oil and gas industry and off limits.