The state of our wilderness and America's public lands

President Obama's State of the Union Address should include energy, conservation and recreation. 

Photo: The White House

President Obama always gives a speech on the State of the Union – but what if instead he gave a speech about the state of America’s wilderness? What is the state of wilderness today?

There is no better moment to reflect on the state of America’s wilderness than this year, as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of The Wilderness Act.

A half century ago, a visionary group of lawmakers proposed a bill to forever protect wild places in America. Today, thanks to The Wilderness Act, more than 100 million acres of America’s forests, mountain peaks, river valleys, and deserts have been protected forever from development.  Our challenges are not over though, and there is more work to be done to ensure our last remaining wildlands are protected.

Protecting our wild places

A bill to protect the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is just one of the many wilderness bills before Congress this year. Photo: jcoutside, flickr

2014 is a year that holds a lot of promise for our federal lands. The 113th Congress – in contrast to its predecessor, the 112th Congress, “the worst Congress for Wilderness” –is beginning to move bills to protect more of America’s wild lands.  Already nearly 30 bills have been introduced, many with bipartisan support.

See which places are waiting for Wilderness protection!

Interior Secretary Jewell has also committed to protecting areas if congressional gridlock cannot be overcome. After nearly five years since the last wilderness areas were designated, it is important that the president use the Antiquities Act to create national monuments in places with broad local support for conservation. Protecting our natural heritage shouldn’t be a casualty of unrelated partisan politics.

Connecting more Americans with the wild

Crews with the 21st Century Conservation Service Corp. Photo: USDA.

In addition to protecting our great wild places, Secretary Jewell is committed to connecting more Americans to their natural and cultural wonders. Through initiatives like the 21st Century Conservation Service Corps (CSC), young people across the country are getting out into wild places, working to rebuild aging trail systems, and most importantly, fostering life-long connections to the spectacular landscapes of America. This effort has been bolstered by retail giant American Eagle Outfitters to the tune of a $1 million investment to the CSC, helping ensure that there are resources for hiring and training the next generation of Americans who will care for our public lands.

Balancing protection with development

Oil and gas development at Colorado's Roan Plateau. Photo: Ecoflight

Finally, we must strike a balance between meeting America’s energy needs and protecting irreplaceable wildlife habitat and open spaces. Right now, many western states are examining ways to better manage habitat for the greater sage-grouse, an iconic Western bird that is threatened by sprawling energy development and degraded habitat. Greater sage-grouse habitat is also home to some of the best remaining wildlands, and keeping these areas off-limits to energy development now could mean permanent protection in the future.

Transitioning to clean energy is another key factor in protecting America’s wild places – not from development, but from global climate change. Renewable energy development is crucial for our nation’s energy future, and public lands provide some of the best places in the world for large scale projects. But we have to be smart about it. We have to direct these projects away from high quality wildlife habitat and towards areas that have low ecological value and previously disturbed lands. We have put the processes in place but we need to follow through and double our renewable energy commitment. Putting more wind turbines and solar panels on the ground in a responsible way can help wean America from fossil fuels, and can protect America’s wilderness from a threat that knows no borders.

Fifty years ago was a time of visionary thinking for America’s wilderness. Now it is time for more groundbreaking policies, plans and actions that will create a new blueprint for protecting the wildest places left in America.

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State of the Union Address should include conversation about energy, conservation and recreation.