Each new administration ushers in high hopes and expectations, and this is especially true today, with so many enormous problems facing the nation – from the struggling economy, to the ongoing wars, to the urgent need to address energy matters.

As part of the equation on energy, we need a change in the way we care for our shared public lands – America’s common ground. Each U.S. citizen is part owner of a public estate that encompasses 711 million acres of land – nearly a third of the entire country. This land belongs to us all, as well as to those who will come after us.

Our federal government has a legal responsibility to act as a good steward of these lands, in order to assure our children and theirs that these public treasures will be available for them to hike, camp, climb, hunt, paddle, and explore, just as has been our good fortune to experience.

During the last eight years, the balance between development and protection, to the dismay of most Americans, has tipped dangerously to one side. The Bush-Cheney administration threw open the gates to oil companies and coal conglomerates with no measurable effect on prices and with no plan to end the country’s addiction to non-renewable and polluting sources of fuel.

This administration became the great enabler, while energy industries racked up obscene profits.

Meanwhile, Americans dearly want their public lands protected as a natural legacy to bequeath to future generations, as poll after poll amply demonstrate. Earlier this year, 87 percent of citizens surveyed by Zogby International said they supported adding lands to the National Wilderness Preservation System, even as gas prices across the nation were peaking on average at more than $4.00 a gallon. And this support cuts across regional and political lines.

This broad and deep backing of a balanced, bipartisan approach to management of our public lands was clear in the work of the 110th Congress, which at the time it adjourned was actively considering an impressive 15 wilderness bills that together would protect more than 2 million acres across eight states: California, Colorado, Idaho, Michigan, New Mexico, Oregon, Virginia and West Virginia. Although time ran out prior to final adoption of this legislation (part of a major omnibus lands package), and other issues such as the auto bailout intervened in the lame duck session, Senate leaders promised to make passage of these conservation measures a priority early in the new Congress.

What is so remarkably salient is how protecting landscapes for the benefit of current and future generations of Americans comports with the new direction that the president-elect indicated he intends to take the country.

These legislative proposals, and the local negotiations that preceded them, are the embodiment of reaching across the political spectrum, involving people with diverse interests in the decisions made regarding how are public lands will be used, and finding solutions that benefit all Americans, particularly those in the local communities affected most directly.

Providing the strongest protection possible to America’s common ground safeguards their quality of life, protects the attributes that drove people to locate in those communities in the first place, and provides benefits to local economies by attracting visitors who keep the cash registers of shops, retailers, and motels ringing.

On a macro level, protecting public lands using the strongest legislative and administrative tools possible also protects air and water quality, wildlife habitat, recreational opportunities, and natural scientific laboratories. Protected forests act as carbon sinks and undeveloped landscapes enable plant and animal species to adapt to changing climatic conditions more readily than in developed areas. The environmental and economic benefits are myriad and widely acknowledged.

Strongly supporting public lands protection is a positive way in which the new administration can show the American people that it has their best interests in mind. It moves past gridlock and looks ahead, assuring all Americans that it is serious about leaving this country a better place for our children and grandchildren.

Mike Matz is executive director of the Campaign for America’s Wilderness.

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