To Protect and to Preserve

Chattanooga Times Free Press
Tuesday, September 8, 2009
Editorial Board

There seemingly are few exceptions to the paroxysms of partisanship that have paralyzed the nation's capital lately, but there is at last one issue of vital importance where widespread agreement provides immeasurable benefit to the nation. Even in the current political climate, usually antagonistic members of Congress continue to provide broad support for the federal wilderness program. Good for them.

Such bipartisan agreement has been the case since the inception of the Wilderness Act, which was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson 45 years ago this month. At its inception, the program protected 9 million acres in 54 wilderness areas. Today, there are more than 109 million protected acres in 44 states. Expansion efforts, thank goodness, continue unabated.

It is a matter of record that the valuable program has grown continuously under both Democratic and Republican administrations. President Ronald Reagan, a Republican, signed more laws to increase wilderness property than any other president, but Democrat occupants of the White House have done their duty as well.

President Barack Obama is the latest to do so. In March, he signed a bill that established 52 new wilderness areas and that increased acreage at more than two dozen existing wilderness areas. His signature added more than 2 million acres to the protection program.

Every president since Mr. Johnson has now signed legislation to expand wilderness areas. An examination of the record, in fact, shows a steady increase over the years in the number of protected acres regardless of who occupies the White House or which party controls Congress. Its proof that unanimity of purpose in politics is possible if not always procurable.

There are now more than 800 wilderness areas in the United States. They range in size from tiny -- the five-acre Rocks and Islands Wilderness in California -- to the stagger-the-imagination nine million acres in the Wrangeli-Saint Elias Wilderness in Alaska. The latter state has the most protected acreage with more than 57 million acres. Ohio, with 77 acres, has the least.

Georgia and Tennessee are in the middle of the pack. The former has nearly 500,000 protected wilderness acres and the and the latter just over 66,000 acres. Those numbers are likely to grow. Efforts to add acreage to protected wilderness areas and to related areas such as the nearby Cherokee National Forest, already the largest tract of public land in Tennessee, are ongoing. All deserve widespread support.

By law, wilderness areas are protected and managed to preserve their natural condition. Use of the land is severely restricted, and properly so, to non-invasive activities such as hiking, backpacking and horseback riding. That's appropriate. Wilderness preservation and protection programs help ensure that future generations can enjoy the nation's patrimony. They also are powerful reminders that we all share an obligation to preserve and to protect such singularly American open spaces.