In late August, I was lucky enough to celebrate in person the fifth anniversary of the Wild Sky Wilderness area in Washington’s Cascade Mountains. This 106,577-acre region is home to rugged mountains, beautiful stretches of pine forests, miles and miles of hiking trails, and the gorgeous Skykomish River.
I know I’m not alone in being so pleased that this wilderness will never be developed, that it’s been embraced as a fun recreation area for so many Americans, and that it’s been a tremendous economic boon to the local towns.
When the efforts to create the Wild Sky Wilderness started, some members of the local community viewed it with skepticism and worried that this effort would harm their local economies. But the results paint a different story. As I traveled up Highway 2, I passed a number of real estate signs promoting “a gateway to Wild Sky” as a reason to purchase the property. And small local businesses are sprouting up all along the highway that feature the words or images of the Wild Sky Wilderness in their signs and capitalize on the recreation opportunities afforded Seattleites by the wilderness for their business.
September marks National Wilderness Month, a time to get out there and enjoy the many wild areas of our great nation. Millions of Americans love to camp, hike, kayak, and otherwise enjoy our national and state parks on our public lands. It brings relaxation, exercise, recreation, not to mention some great memories with our families.
What’s more, these millions of people heading into the great outdoors are a significant economic boost to so many towns. According to the Outdoor Industry Association, outdoor recreation generates $646 billion in consumer spending annually, while supporting 6.1 million jobs.
This National Wilderness Month is also a time to remember that to leave a robust wild legacy for our children, we must significantly increase the amount of public lands and waters that are permanently protected as national monuments and wilderness.
About 5 percent of the land in the United States — just under 110 million acres — is protected as wilderness. But about half of this acreage is in Alaska. That means only about 2.7 percent of the Lower 48 enjoys wilderness status, and few Americans can access it.
Our nation’s wilderness is under significant pressure from mining, drilling, logging, and other development. The pollution and accelerated climate disruption these activities bring make it more imperative than ever that we continue to expand on our wilderness legacy.
The United States was the first country in the world to designate wilderness areas through law. The Wilderness Act is a historically bipartisan piece of legislation that allows communities to come together and craft solutions that protect the special places on which they rely.
But Congress is the only body that can designate these areas, and you know how well they’ve been doing on environmental issues: Congress has not passed any new wilderness legislation in more than four years.
There are several wilderness bills stalled in the current Congress, and action is needed to move them through. More areas like Washington’s Wild Sky Wilderness must be created nationwide so that Americans can enjoy them.
The economy benefits as well — the Outdoor Industry Association estimates that the yearly benefits of clean air and water provided by natural areas is estimated at $1.6 trillion.
Wilderness designations not only protect drinking water sources, but they also create a buffer from extreme weather like storms, flooding, drought, and rising sea levels brought on by climate disruption.
We must do better for future generations. America’s wild lands are the last repository of nature’s bounty. Let’s call on Congress to protect our nation’s wild areas for everyone.
Dan Ritzman is the senior campaign manager of the Sierra Club’s Our Wild America program.