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Mike Matz, Published August 11 2012

Building a wild legacy

Doing business in Washington has never been easy – and public legacies often require bipartisan agreement. But there has been a strong tradition of our nation’s leaders, at the highest levels, putting other differences aside to preserve America’s natural heritage.

A legacy is a gift, one we give to our children or to the public, for use and enjoyment now or in the future. Parents bequeath money or property to their heirs to provide a solid foundation for their lives. Similarly, elected officials often want to leave something for their constituents: sometimes passing a bill to fund construction of a building, highway or dam. But legislative bequests can also take the form of permanently protected parts of our nation’s last remaining wild places.

By recent count, 26 members of the House of Representatives and 10 in the Senate are retiring in December at the end of the 112th Congress. And for legislators looking to round out their congressional careers by imparting a lasting legacy, I have a suggestion.

Two dozen bills to designate wilderness areas – the highest level of permanent legal protection available for U.S. public lands – are moving forward in Congress. Many of these proposals enjoy strong support by a diverse array of constituents who are keen to see these conservation measures enacted for the many benefits they could bring to their local communities, from the preservation of clean water supplies to a potential influx of new tourism dollars. Retiring members could play a crucial role in helping pass these measures.

For example, Teddy Roosevelt is renowned for his conservation efforts, utilizing an array of legal tools to leave a wealth of areas that Americans enjoy today. Less commonly known, however, is that President Ronald Reagan worked with congressional leaders in both parties, including Speaker “Tip” O’Neill, D-Mass., and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., to approve legislation that permanently protected more than 10 million acres of pristine land.

Reagan signed 43 measures covering areas in 27 states – more bills than any president since the Wilderness Act became law in 1964. California’s Magic Mountain Wilderness, Spice Run Wilderness in West Virginia and Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park Wilderness, to name just a few, are enduring monuments of the willingness of lawmakers and presidents to work across party lines to leave a legacy from which Americans can benefit.

I’m optimistic that Congress will act before the end of the year on a package of public land measures, including several sponsored by members giving up their seats.

By some counts, more than 160 memorials are in our nation’s capital. Yet some of the largest, and perhaps most-striking, testaments to the enduring accomplishments of U.S. political leaders can be found far outside Washington. And as the 112th Congress winds to a close, I hope outgoing members will take this unique opportunity to add their legacy to the collection of truly remarkable places preserved over the past 48 years as wilderness areas across America.

Matz directs the Pew Environment Group’s Campaign for America’s Wilderness.