Every once in awhile, Congress outdoes itself and gets something really right.
One of those somethings is the Wilderness Act of 1964, whose 45th anniversary was celebrated September 3.
The product of both extraordinary vision and practical politics, the Wilderness Act is what Seattle author and veteran wilderness campaign leader Doug Scott calls the "gold standard" of conservation.
The Wilderness Act also is the gold standard of legislative craftsmanship. The law gives ordinary citizens across the country the tools to fight bottom-up campaigns to protect treasured places - forests and deserts, mountains and marshes, spare tundra and verdant tropics.
The passage of time shows that ordinary citizens have put those tools to spectacularly good use. The Wilderness Act included 54 initial wilderness areas covering 9.1 million acres. Today, 45 years later, there are 756 wilderness areas covering nearly 110 million acres in 44 states and Puerto Rico - nearly 5 percent of America's total land area.
Doug Scott calls that achievement a "down payment on forever." There are lots more places deserving of wilderness designation - the Tumacacori Highlands in Arizona, the Scotchman Peaks in Montana, the Cheyenne River Valley in South Dakota, to name a few.
And when they are designated, the protection will last. One of the strokes of brilliance that went into writing the Wilderness Act was hardwiring preservation into the statute books.
Passing laws is hard because the Constitution's writers made it hard. The Founders wanted lawmakers to discuss and deliberate, to get the wording right. A consequence of making passage of laws difficult is that undoing passage of laws is equally difficult.
As Doug Scott tells it, the Wilderness Act's supporters knew that. The boundaries of designated wilderness areas are written into law. The lines on the map cannot be moved so much as a foot without an act of Congress, shielding wilderness areas from bureaucratic whims and transitory political pressures.
In an era of rabid partisanship, it's also worth remembering that wilderness protection is largely bipartisan.
Always has been, says Scott, who keeps a treasured copy of the original bill draft. The Wilderness Act passed with overwhelming bipartisan majorities. When it was first introduced in 1956, its Senate sponsor was Hubert Humphrey, the Minnesota Democrat who was the liberal icon of Congress before the late Edward Kennedy assumed that role. The sponsor in the House was John Saylor, a Pennsylvania Republican who lived out the true meaning of conservatism through his combative campaigns to protect America's wild heritage, which Saylor called "buffers for the human spirit."
Scott tells the story of working successfully with the Nixon White House to get federal agencies to strengthen wilderness recommendations the agencies were preparing for Congress.
In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan signed dozens of bills that designated nearly 11 million acres, about 10 percent of today's wilderness acreage.
And George W. Bush signed every wilderness bill that landed on his desk, adding nearly 2.5 million acres to the system.
One of those bills established the 106,577-acre Wild Sky Wilderness in Washington State. Present at the Wild Sky's dedication ceremony was one Mark Rey, after whose name scornful environmentalists invariably appended the description "former timber industry lobbyist."
Rey, who served in the Bush administration as USDA's undersecretary for natural resources and the environment, promised at a Senate hearing that Bush would sign the Wild Sky bill. That earned Rey a thank-you phone call from Scott after the bill became law.
Never make permanent enemies, Scott counsels younger activists. One can never tell who might end up on your side. Work patiently but fight like hell.
Maybe "hell" is the wrong word. Fighting for wilderness is like building cathedrals. It's a lifetime enterprise of the spirit, an expression of our finest aspirations and a gift to unborn generations whose prospects are in our trust.
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