By Dan Randolph
You don’t miss your water till the well runs dry. It is easy to take things for granted, even really important things: our family, our jobs, the beautiful area in which we live, the air we breath, clean water to drink, our ability to challenge our government. The lack of these things is easily seen as undesirable: water too polluted to swim in, fish too full of mercury to eat, air you can taste, government taking actions without our ability to challenge them.
It is critically important that we remember and celebrate the protections we have, for our health, our lands, our waters and our air.
2014 is the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. Enacted in 1964, the act allows Congress to designate “an area where the Earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain” as a wilderness area. By definition, wilderness is “an area of undeveloped federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions.”
Here in the Four Corners we are blessed with numerous wilderness areas, from Dark Canyon in southeastern Utah, the Bisti/De-Na-Zin south of Farmington, parts of Mesa Verde, the South San Juans, Lizard Head and, of course, the Weminuche. These also illustrate the inclusion of Bureau of Land Management, national park and national forest lands.
For those of us who ride horses, hike, ski, fish or hunt in these areas, their value is well-known. The value of these areas also is economic. A 2004 study of 113 rural counties in the West showed an increase in income and employment in those counties with wilderness areas. Preserving the Old West – of wild areas, abundant wildlife and open spaces – helps support a New West of economic growth and good jobs.
The reality of wilderness supporting good jobs is seen in the widespread local business support for the proposed Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Act, which, I hope, will make it through Congress this year.
A host of events will be occurring this year in celebration of the Wilderness Act and our local wilderness areas.
The Wilderness Act of 1964 was the first of a series of environmental laws that remain critical to our health, economic prosperity and ability to challenge governmental actions.
In 1968, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act was passed, which allows Congress to protect wild, scenically and recreationally important rivers, much as wilderness designation protects landscapes. In 1970, the Clean Air Act and the National Environmental Protection Act were enacted, followed by the Clean Water Act in 1972, the Endangered Species Act in 1973 and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (Superfund) in 1980.
The goal of the Clean Water Act is to make all waters safe for fishing and swimming; the goal of the Clean Air Act is to ensure the air is safe to breath; and the Endangered Species Act is to “halt and reverse the trend toward species extinction.” The Superfund act makes those who pollute an area pay for the needed cleanup of the pollution. The National Environmental Policy Act requires the government to evaluate the impacts of its actions on the human and nonhuman environment, and, critically, in a fully public manner.
All of these laws were passed with bipartisan support. Clean air, clean water, wild spaces are not partisan issues, nor is public oversight of governmental actions. No one wants to live in an area with heavy air pollution or next to a river that stinks. No one wants to pay to clean up someone else’s mess or under a government that acts without public input and oversight.
As with all things we take for granted, if we choose to ignore the blessings of clean air, clear and free rivers, wild spaces inhabited by a diversity of wild critters, they will disappear.
2014 is a year to celebrate wilderness. Go explore the existing wilderness areas and help support the creation of new ones. Revel in the ability to get lost, to feel small and vulnerable, to feel free. In addition, be thankful for the air we breathe, the water we fish and swim in. These are nontrivial things.