How we benefit from wilderness legislation

Bristlecone Pine in the White Mountains, California. Photo by John Dittli.

In wilderness, nature rules.

Wilderness is nature in the raw — a place undeveloped, untrammeled and unspeakably beautiful. It's a place open and accessible to anyone — sportsmen, anglers, hikers, backpackers, equestrians, climbers and others — who are willing to venture out and survive, if even for a short while, at the mercy of their wits and the elements.

A bill on the threshold of passage in Congress will dramatically expand the system which protects our public wildlands. The National Wilderness Preservation System will grow by about 2 million acres should the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act pass the U.S. House of Representatives. It has already cleared the Senate, and President Barack Obama is expected to sign it.

The bill is a celebration of all our wild places, all of which are open and accessible to you and all Americans who are willing and able to venture forth into untamed territory and test themselves against the elements under their own power and without the assistance of mechanized vehicles.

Wilderness is for everyone, and, if this bill passes, you'll be able to experience it in places like Utah's Zion National Park. Even with its frontcountry crowds, Zion embodies the idea of wilderness — a rugged canyonland of naked sandstone where humans are only visitors who do not linger. If you've ever hiked to Kolob Arch — one of the longest in the world — waded the Virgin River narrows or climbed down into the cavernous Subway, you know what I mean when I say this place is wild.

Take a hike off of Trail Ridge Road at Rocky Mountain National Park, and you'll have the quintessential Colorado wilderness experience. This is a place where nature demands you use all your senses and judgment as you summit 14,255-foot Longs Peak or glissade down a glacier to the edge of a high alpine lake echoing with the chirps of pikas. Nearly 3 million people visit the park each year, but the wild is only as distant as the nearest trailhead. When the Omnibus bill passes 250,000 acres of this park will be designated wilderness.

Why are our 107.3 million acres of wilderness over 704 designated wilderness areas so important? They're important because the ecological integrity of our communities, wildlife habitat, watersheds and national parks and even scientific research depend on them. They're important because they represent the ultimate escape from frenetic cities and towns, affording those who visit them an opportunity to experience nature at its most pristine and untamed and to put civilized life into perspective with the natural world.

Wilderness is Colorado's iconic Maroon Bells and Alaska's formidable Denali — the highest mountain in North America. Wilderness is the primeval woods of North Carolina's Cold Mountain or the cypress knee-studded swamplands of South Carolinas Hell Hole Bay and Congaree National Park. It's the windswept slopes of Yosemite, the wandering dunes of Death Valley, the headwaters of Georgia's Chattooga River and the vast rugged expanse of Idaho's River of No Return country. It's also the rolling bison pasturelands of Nebraska's Fort Niobrara and the sand dunes on Fire Island, almost within view of the skyscrapers of New York City.

These are your wildlands — icons of America's natural heritage and identity.

Other lands the Omnibus bill protects, such as national monuments and national conservation areas, are also wild, but they're not necessarily designated wilderness. Conservation areas are some of the nation's more obscure, but no less important and beautiful, public lands that incorporate both wilderness areas and lands that are managed for a variety of uses in one protected landscape.

This bill will create the Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area in Colorado and the Prehistoric Trackways National Monument in New Mexico while ensuring that the system that protects Utah's canyon-riddled Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and other monuments like it stays in place well into the future.

The passage of this bill means more of our land — national parks, national forests, national wildlife refuges and all our other public lands — are protected for future generations and for the ecological integrity of our nation. It means your kids and grandkids will have more land to experience in its most natural state and immerse themselves in a place that is truly extraordinary: wilderness — where nature rules.

photo: Bristlecone Pine in the White Mountains, California - a part of the Eastern Sierra and Northern San Gabriel Wild Heritage Act within the Omnibus Public Land Management Act. Photo by John Dittli.