Fifty years ago President Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act and the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act into law. These two landmark conservation bills have bequeathed to us a lasting legacy of the natural world.
The Wilderness Act protected nine million acres of pristine land, largely unaltered in its original and raw beauty since America’s first settlers crossed its grounds. In the ensuing five decades, another 30 wilderness bills have become law, designating 758 wilderness areas, and protecting 110 million acres of land in the United States, about 4.5 percent of the country.
By law, these lands must be protected in a natural state, “where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain” and “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.”
The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) Act invests royalties from offshore oil and gas leases into land conservation and outdoor recreational opportunities. It is based on the premise that a portion of the revenue drawn from a non-renewable resource should be applied to permanently protecting land and providing opportunities for its public use.
Today, there is not a city or county in this country that has not received assistance or benefitted from this fund through the creation or expansion of local parks, preservation of historic or cultural sites and creation of recreational opportunities. Here in Northern Virginia, the popular Washington and Old Dominion Bike Trail and the scenic easements across the Potomac from Mount Vernon are but two LWCF investments that continue provide immeasurable benefits to our rapidly urbanizing community.
But beyond protecting green spaces or historic sites, these two laws and the programs they support are instrumental at providing a safe haven for wildlife, saving many endangered species from extinction, protecting fresh sources of drinking water for millions of Americans, providing jobs to a growing outdoor recreation industry, and income to communities adjacent to protected public lands.
It’s disheartening that some don’t appreciate the unaltered beauty these two laws preserve and that too many in Congress have worked to undermine efforts to protect public land from development and defund the LWCF. As we celebrate their 50th anniversary, let us ensure these two laws and their positive impact on our country are themselves preserved for future generations.