In December, Congress and the President did more than signing the conservation provisions of the National Defense Authorization Act into law: They gave Americans an irreplaceable gift by protecting a number of locally supported natural, cultural and historic sites in more than 25 states to explore and celebrate.
This law conserves wild lands and rivers critical for our wildlife, water quality, local economies and ourselves — to enjoy and connect with our heritage.
The suite of public lands bills tied to the National Defense Authorization Act designated more than 245,000 acres of new wilderness, and new protections for more than 1 million acres of other public lands. Although there are continuing threats to public lands and the act included several problematic and destructive provisions, it secured significant conservation gains across the nation.
In Washington state, it expanded the Alpine Lakes Wilderness by roughly 22,000 acres, preserving low-elevation, family-friendly wilderness within a 45-minute drive of Seattle. It also designated Illabot Creek and the Pratt and Middle Fork Snoqualmie rivers as “Wild and Scenic” and created the Manhattan Project National Historical Park as a new unit of the National Park System.
Many of the public lands bills that passed into law represent years of outreach to local communities in the effort to find common ground and meet the needs of diverse groups of public land users — sportsmen and women, hikers, ranchers, mountain bikers, hunters, anglers and many others. These transparent, locally driven efforts build consensus and create momentum for broadly supported measures that protect our shared public lands. After seven years of public outreach, more than 70 local elected officials, more than 100 outdoor local businesses and leading members of the outdoor industry, and nearly 150 conservation, recreation, hunting and fishing and religious leaders voiced their support for the Alpine Lakes legislation.
In addition to preserving spectacular national landscapes for future generations, protected public lands provide a significant boost to local economies. Outdoor recreation pumps $646 billion into the U.S. economy and supports more than 6 million homegrown jobs. In early January, the Washington State Recreation and Conservation Office released the first comprehensive study of how recreation spending impacts Washington’s economy. It found that outdoor recreation contributes $20.5 billion to the state economy annually and supports nearly 200,000 Washington jobs, comparable to the aerospace and tech industries in Washington. Our public lands are critical to Washington State’s economic future.
These victories would not have been possible without continuing bipartisan leadership from our Congressional champions on both sides of the aisle. In our state, U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell and Reps. Dave Reichert, R-Auburn, and Suzan DelBene, D-Medina, worked tirelessly on this legislation that supports local economies and makes sure this region remains a spectacular place to live, work and play. They proved that protecting our public lands is not a Republican or Democratic issue but an all-American value.
But the fight isn’t over. Less than two weeks into the new Congress, our public lands were under attack again, with an average of one new threat per day to wild places in Washington and beyond. These proposals threaten our most treasured parks, monuments, and wilderness lands, livelihoods of communities who depend on them, and our shared American heritage. They threaten to make it more difficult for future generations to create new national parks and protected public lands and eliminate existing protections for many vital areas. It’s clear that special interests are focused on maximizing their profits at the expense of protecting our lands and waters.
We know that the American people reject these proposals. A December 2014 poll found that 7 out of 10 voters, including most Republicans, “strongly support” proposals to protect wilderness, monuments and other natural treasures. The numbers don’t lie: The American people deeply value our lands and waters and want them better protected for our children and grandchildren.
Historically we have seen strong bipartisan support for preserving our public lands and for the conservation laws that protect them, and we are thrilled to see our congressional leaders in Washington carrying on this tradition. It’s critical we continue to stand together to protect our state’s public lands and rivers as a shared national treasure that will benefit many generations to come.
Doug Walker submitted this article in cooperation with the Alpine Lakes Protection Society, American Rivers, American Whitewater, Middle Fork Coalition, The Mountaineers, Washington State Chapter Sierra Club and Washington Wild.