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Bear in the Woods: Environmental Law Blog

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Working together to protect a community of life untrammeled by man

When we think about our future, sometimes it's helpful to take a look back at the past. As the New York Times reports, this week marks the 50th anniversary of two important federal environmental laws: The Wilderness Act and the law establishing the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Both of these statutes were passed with bi-partisan majorities at the dawning of the environmental era of American politics.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund was established to use federal funds obtained from offshore drilling to conserve natural areas, landmarks, and recreational opportunities. Although its funding often falls far short of the $900 million authorized by statute, the Land Water and Conservation Fund has invested over $16 billion in conservation measures over its 50-year lifespan. In Pennsylvania, that money has been used, among other things, to create the Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville and to protect the Hopewell Big Woods forest in southeastern Pennsylvania.

The Wilderness Act was enacted to protect natural areas that are undisturbed by humans. Under the Act, "wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain." At the time it was signed, the Act protected about 9 million acres of wilderness from human development. Today, there are more than 106 million acres of land protected as wilderness. About 44 million of those protected acres are located within the National Park System; other wilderness areas are managed by the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, or the Bureau of Land Management. Pennsylvania has two wilderness areas: The Allegheny Islands Wilderness on seven islands in the Allegheny River and the Hickory Creek Wilderness in Warren County. 

Thinking about the success of these early federal environmental programs may help us to recognize the respect and admiration for nature shared by nearly all people. Our common love for undisturbed natural areas is shared by people of all ages, ethnic groups, and political affiliations. In a time when we're all frustrated by partisan bickering, recognizing our shared values, and important gains that resulted from those shared values, may help us to better understand and appreciate other people -- and perhaps reveal the path to future progress.

Mike Helbing is a staff attorney in PennFuture's Philadelphia office.

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