As we take some time to reflect on what we are thankful for this holiday season, all of us can take heart in the far-reaching gift of wilderness that the 109th Congress has given to all Americans, for all time.

Despite two years marked with so much stalemate and partisan bickering, members of this Congress compiled a record in preserving wilderness of which they can be proud – the gift of permanent protection of more than 1 million acres of amazing wild places in California, New Mexico, New Hampshire, Nevada, Puerto Rico, Utah and Vermont.

These newly protected treasures include stunning desert canyon lands, mountain ranges rising like islands in the desert, a lushly inviting tropical rainforest, and the largest remaining stretch of undeveloped coastline in the continental United States.

But that’s not all, for Congress enacted wilderness protection for more than half a million acres of majestic sagebrush expanses to ensure a representative sample remains intact, as well as forested ridges and wonderfully secluded valleys in northeastern woods – home to gorgeous displays of autumn’s colors. These treasures are for all of us. This is America’s common ground.

Securing this lasting protection for the wildest, most natural of land you and I, and all Americans own, never comes easily. It took Congress eight years to pass the legislation, the 1964 Wilderness Act, which began this wise program. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson championed it throughout that long period, even as wild land continued to succumb to drill rigs and chainsaws.

And it takes an act of Congress each time to add publicly owned land to the National Wilderness Preservation System. To achieve success, local residents band together, study these lands with the help of experts, and draft wilderness proposals. They engage local businesses and community leaders to back their vision for passing along a special hunting spot or an iconic vista to future generations. It represents democracy at its basic roots.

Collaboration to find common-sense solutions to nettlesome issues has also been a driving force behind the success of wilderness legislation that gains congressional approval. Imagine lifelong adversaries, like a rancher whose history stretches back generations on the same spread, and a recently transplanted urbanite who loves to cross-country ski, sitting down together to hammer out a consensus on a wilderness proposal that meets the needs of both – and many others.

It happens, and it works, because both care about leaving this place just as it is, or even better, for those who will come after them. The successes of the 109th Congress amply show the proof is in this holiday’s pudding.

In Montana, Oregon and Washington, where debates over the fate of our national forests have been raged nearly incessantly and often very acrimoniously for a century, timber mill owners are currently at the table with conservationists to craft proposals that can be supported by both, because both get something. The timber mills get to log under tenets of restoration precepts, which will make the forest healthier after a century of fire suppression. Conservationists secure swathes of forest for permanent protection from logging as designated wilderness.

This emerging win-win situation is hailed by Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer as “unprecedented and visionary.” Times are changing when folks more used to being at loggerheads are coming together to save – and log – trees at the same time.

The work of protecting the nation’s remaining wilderness is far from done. Americans can look for the new Congress to consider wilderness bills that nearly became law this year, including proposals for the stunning Boulder-White Cloud Mountains of central Idaho, Oregon’s picturesque Mount Hood and the Wild Sky range of mountains in Washington.

Ordinary people are doing extraordinary things to make democracy work in the forested hills and hollows of Virginia, in the Arkansas River valley of Colorado for the rafting mecca known as Browns Canyon, and for the polychromatic Organ Mountains bracketing the east side of Las Cruces, N.M.

President Teddy Roosevelt, an avid sportsman and conservationist, wrote that “the nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased, and not impaired in value.”

He didn’t mean sticking a shiny lump of anthracite in your children’s stockings. Like legions of other hunters, parents, schoolteachers, Realtors, and, yes, even loggers, who are guided by the same philosophy today and are working hard to realize its fulfillment, Roosevelt meant giving a gift of natural heritage for posterity. Because we are doing just that, there’s plenty to be thankful for this holiday.

Mike Matz is the executive director of the Campaign for America’s Wilderness, 122 C Street NW, Suite 240, Washington, D.C. 20001; Web site: www.leaveitwild.org.


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