09/20/2011 04:51 pm ET | Updated Nov 20, 2011

Giving Back to the Land

Teddy Roosevelt, in a frequently cited address, once noted that, "We have fallen heirs to the most glorious heritage a people ever received, and each one must do his part if we wish to show that the nation is worthy of its good fortune."

On September 24, we will celebrate both National Public Lands and National Hunting and Fishing Day. This occasion provides an excellent opportunity for Americans to get outdoors and give something back by becoming active in local projects to protect our nation's natural splendor. It's also a crucial chance for people across the country to tell leaders in Congress that the allure of short-term economic gain is no reason to strip protections from tens of millions of acres of still pristine areas. Unfortunately, a pending congressional proposal could undermine decades of progress in preserving this wondrous heritage.

Our national forests, wildlife refuges and other public lands are a resource for all of us. Scores of Americans annually take advantage of these special places. This July, just over 900,000 people visited Yellowstone National Park, the second highest number for any single month ever recorded.

That's what makes National Public Lands Day so special. It encourages people around the United States to volunteer to clean up parks, plant trees or maintain trails. It also reminds us to take care of the natural legacy we've been given.

Likewise, National Hunting and Fishing Day honors the conservation leadership that hunters and anglers historically have provided in restoring wildlife populations to previous abundance and protecting the habitat on which many species - from birds to bears - depend. Established by President Richard Nixon in 1972, the day also serves as an opportunity for parents to introduce the wonders of nature to their youngsters and teach our children about just how fragile these special places can be.

We are losing open spaces at an astonishing rate - more than 3 million acres a year, or nearly 8,000 acres a day. You see this loss in meadows converted to malls, forests cleared for subdivisions and wild places being opened to new oil and gas drilling, coal extraction and hardrock mining. These activities can be an important source of jobs, but we need to strike a balance between development and protection because America's wild lands are a finite resource.

We must bequeath to our heirs some semblance of the diminishing natural world. And fortunately, that's been happening over the last half century. Since the enactment of the Wilderness Act - a legal tool that allows Americans to safeguard some of our public lands in perpetuity - we have had the foresight to conserve more than 100 million acres.

Saving places as part of the National Wilderness Preservation System keeps pristine areas in an untrammeled state and free for us to enjoy. Moreover, because of citizens' calls for action, more designations are under consideration.

Some in Congress, however, are currently pushing legislation that would open more than 60 million acres - an area the size of Wyoming - of now-protected areas to extractive industries. Known as the Wilderness and Roadless Area Release Act of 2011, this bill would strip current safeguards for irreplaceable old-growth forests, sinuous canyons and sagebrush plains before they can be properly assessed or otherwise conserved.

If industrial development and off-road vehicle use are allowed, these places will become permanently ineligible for wilderness consideration. Moreover, the release bill would abandon the balanced, bipartisan approach utilized by our nation's leaders over the past several decades to ensure that America's last undeveloped lands are protected for generations to come. Indeed, President Ronald Reagan signed more wilderness bills into law than any other president in U.S. history, working with a Democratic Congress to enact 21 proposals in 1984 alone.

As both National Public Lands and National Hunting and Fishing Day remind us, we are fortunate to have unspoiled places we all can enjoy. And as President Roosevelt so wisely warned over a century ago, if Americans are to continue to enjoy this nation's rich "natural heritage" we must actively protect it.

This Sept. 24, millions of Americans will do their part. Congress should follow suit by rejecting this misguided wilderness release proposal.

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