Several months ago, Congressman Dave Reichert, a Washington State Republican, held a show-and-tell in the Cascade Mountains to tout a wilderness bill he planned to introduce.
A gaggle of conservationists and local dignitaries joined Reichert at a picnic shelter to hear about the proposal before taking a few brief hikes to see for themselves.
At the shelter, a Republican county official looked around at the craggy mountains and Douglas fir forests. Backing this kind of legislation is a no-brainer, he said to a few people nearby. We ought to do this more often.
Good advice. Up in those woods lies a path towards rediscovering the ancient conservative verity of stewardship. Along the trail is a less strident, more enriching civic tradition of conservation leadership.
Earlier this month, Congressman Reichert introduced his bill to add 22,000 acres of lower-elevation Cascade forests to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness east of Seattle. Reicherts bill is not the only wilderness legislation moving forward. A quiet and refreshingly bipartisan revival of support for wilderness conservation is bubbling in Congress.
We havent returned to the glory days of the 1970s and 80s, when millions of acres of the wildlands that tell the nations story were given the lasting, thorough protection that only the Wilderness Act of 1964 can provide.
Still, Congress seems to be edging away from the dispiriting, wholly unnecessary partisan divisions that have bedeviled wilderness legislation of late.
Take a look.
Other legislation with Republican pedigrees would designate wilderness in Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park in California, the Chattahoochee National Forest in Georgia, Washingtons northern Cascades, and Oregons Mount Hood National Forest.
While the administration has not actively pushed wilderness, President Bush has signed all 12 of the wilderness bills sent to him since 2001.
Dont get the idea that wilderness has become a Kumbaya moment on Capitol Hill. There are still political obstacles. Ideologues, motorized recreation groups, and other special interests are still serving up the old rhetoric. E.g., wilderness locks up valuable resources. Wilderness denies people access to their land. Wilderness is for elitists. Wilderness is bad for the economy.
All those points are easily refuted. None of them reflect traditional conservative values that speak to stewardship.
But countering bad rhetoric with good arguments is not enough. Whats been helping lately is that savvy lawmakers like Reichert and Bono have relied on old-fashioned, shoe-leather politics to build inclusive, locally based, pro-wilderness coalitions that can overwhelm wilderness opponents.
The lawmakers listened to stakeholders who were willing to negotiate. They tweaked proposed wilderness boundaries to head off conflicts. Reichert, for example, made sure that his bill wouldnt interfere with avalanche control near Interstate 90. Bono excluded a pipeline from her bill at the request of a local water district.
Yes, it looks like sausage making, but the grassroots approach is what the framers of the Wilderness Act had in mind. Howard Zahniser, the visionary who fought for the Wilderness Act, realized that requiring congressional approval of wilderness designation would make conservation bottom-up and democratic, not top-down and bureaucratic.
Like any other civic endeavor, conservation works best through including and listening. Zahniser and his generation of conservationists knew that. If the rediscovery of what Zahniser knew keeps up, wilderness conservation may regain a broadly shared identity as a deep-rooted American ideal that honors our heritage and serves future generations.
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