President Barack Obama recently designated nearly half a million acres in southern New Mexico as the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument, a move that was applauded by a wide swath of New Mexicans, including Hispanic leaders, veterans, sportsmen and the faith community. But for the rest of the country, it might have signaled something even better — that coming on the heels of bipartisan congressional legislation to preserve 32,500 acres of wilderness in Michigan, we may have rediscovered an issue on which Democrats and Republicans can agree.
For Americans who value public lands, whether for hunting, fishing, hiking or just scenic viewing, these have been troubling times. Although we are approaching the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, until recently, it’s been difficult for a legislator from either party to push a wilderness bill through Congress.
It wasn’t always like this. Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle championed the Wilderness Act of 1964, which was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson. For decades, chief executives and congressional leaders embraced the law, with President Ronald Reagan having an especially large impact. Working most of the time with a Republican-controlled Senate and a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives, Reagan signed 43 bills designating more than 10 million acres of wilderness in 27 states — more pieces of such legislation than any other president. And 16 presidents have used the Antiquities Act to help ensure the continued protection of the nation’s wild treasures.
There’s no reason to believe that prior administrations and congressional leaders have done all that needs doing. After all, the Wilderness Act and Antiquities Act haven’t become irrelevant any more than the laws safeguarding our air and drinking water are suddenly no longer needed. Preserving our last unspoiled places, like the Rocky Mountain Front in Montana, Tennessee’s Cherokee National Forest, Idaho’s Boulder-White Clouds, and the Wild Olympics in Washington state, will allow our children and grandchildren to explore and enjoy these areas as they have always been — great places to hike, hunt, camp and fish.