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From Walden Pond to Wilderness: Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act and the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act

09/03/2014 12:03 pm ET | Updated Nov 03, 2014
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"...in Wildness is the preservation of the World."

Henry David Thoreau's famous line was not published until a month after his death in 1862 in the essay "Walking." Thoreau spent much of the last decade of his life proclaiming the importance of nature and wilderness. His insight, distilled into a single sentence, echoed down the years as other Americans constructed our country's conservation legacy on the foundation Thoreau built in Concord, Massachusetts.

Just over 100 years after the publication of Thoreau's words -- and 50 years ago today -- President Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act into law. Having established the first national parks in the world, America was once again innovating when it came to protecting our natural heritage. This time we had the foresight to safeguard the areas "untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain." Since President Johnson signed the law, we've protected nearly 110 million acres of wilderness, areas where visitors can enjoy nature's rhythms that so inspired Thoreau. As America continues to grow and the impacts of climate change manifest, these places are increasingly important havens for humans and wildlife alike.

While we have preserved many critical wild parts of America, there are still areas that deserve protection, especially from increasing pressure for oil and natural gas extraction. That's why I've been fighting to protect Georges Bank off the coast of Massachusetts. That's why I've supported preserving the natural and cultural heritage of the Red Rock wilderness in Utah. That's why for over a decade I've led efforts to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where we have the unique opportunity to preserve all the ecosystems that stretch from the ocean to the mountains. These places are too precious to drill.

As important as wilderness was to Thoreau, he also understood the need for nature closer to home. His cabin at Walden Pond was not far from Concord and his daily walks took him through the nearby forests and fields. Along with the Wilderness Act, President Johnson also signed the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act, which has provided funding to protect and enhance everything from remote rivers to neighborhood parks. Royalties paid by oil companies for extracting oil and natural gas from federal offshore leases are deposited in the fund. Each year Congress appropriates money for use by state programs and for national parks, wildlife refuges and forests. This creates benefits for the public from allowing oil companies to extract oil and natural gas from resources that belong to all Americans.

Since 1965 the Massachusetts state program has received almost $96 million and acquired nearly 4000 acres and improved hundreds of parks. Over $100 million has supported federal lands in Massachusetts like the Cape Cod National Seashore, the Silvio Conte National Wildlife Refuge and the Minute Man National Historical Park, which honors both the Revolutionary War battlefield and the impact of Thoreau and his Concord contemporaries--Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Louisa May Alcott--had on American literature.

This investment in conservation pays dividends to our economy attracting over 2.4 million wildlife watchers and sportsmen and women who spend over $1.6 billion annually in Massachusetts. It also provides benefits that are harder to quantify. What's the value of supporting the Connecticut River watershed and the clean drinking water it provides to the Quabbin Reservoir, Boston's primary drinking water source? What's the worth of coastal conservation lands providing protection from rising seas and extreme storms brought by global warming? As President Kennedy noted in his February 1963 letter to Congress accompanying the draft legislation for the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act, "In addition to the enhancement of spiritual, cultural, and physical values resulting from the preservation of these resources, the expenditures for their preservation are a sound financial investment." And the first 50 years of the program have proven him correct.

Despite the success of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, America is not benefiting from its full potential. The law allows for $900 million to be used each year. Only rarely have annual funding levels approached that amount despite it being only a fraction of the billions oil companies pay in in royalties. I have supported robust funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund throughout my career in Congress. On its 50th anniversary, I am proud to join with a bipartisan group of senators in supporting S.338, the Land and Water Conservation Authorization and Funding Act of 2013, which will make the program permanent and guarantee full funding for it every year.

This investment in our country will pay immediate dividends to our economy and our environment and provide an indispensable inheritance for future Americans. It creates an insurance policy against the ravages of climate change. And, as Thoreau suggested, it may just help preserve the world and our place in it.