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Protecting our precious public lands

The Western writer Wallace Stegner held American citizens to be “more fortunate than other men” for the abundance of their publicly owned lands.
Since Yellowstone National Park and under successive presidents, especially Theodore Roosevelt, many land parcels are protected for common use, as “permanent recreation and pleasuring grounds for the whole country” and for other, important societal goals.
In “Where the Bluebird Sings” Stegner writes that, through public-lands protection, visionary American governments responded to “a higher duty.”
These lands’ management through the responsible agencies aims to maintain their health and beauty, “protect the watersheds and spawning streams, forests and grasslands, geological and scenic splendors, historical and archeological remains, air and water and serene space” that make Americans a lucky one among the peoples of an increasingly crowded world.
Fortunately, despite some disparaging developments recently, publicly-owned lands are still growing, nationally and in Tennessee.
They grew by more than half-a-million acres in the Mojave Desert when the Wildlands Conservancy, a private non-profit organization, purchased in-holding parcels and donated the land to the Interior Department. Honoring Native American lands and the historic Mojave Road and Route 66, President Obama this month designated three areas as new (Mojave Trails, Castle Mountains, and Sand to Snow) National Monuments.
They preserve, as the National Parks Conservation Association noted, soaring mountain ranges, precious desert water resources and rare cactus and Joshua tree forest treasures at the heart of the Mojave.
Through gaining more than 2,000 “scenic wilderness” acres as our newest, Rocky Fork State Park, and other areas, Tennesseans also enjoy expanded public-lands recreation opportunities. Relative to 2005, when 44 residents shared one state park-land acre, 30 Tennesseans do now.
Thanks to Senator Lamar Alexander, the omnibus federal budget bill in December restored, for a 3-year span, the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Working with North Carolina’s Senator Burr, Alexander is seeking to obtain permanent re-authorization.
Established by President Kennedy, the LWCF has been the premier funding source for acquiring land parcels for public use, from small city parks and play-fields to national monuments. It helped secure the Rocky Fork tract a few years ago.
Thanks to Representative Phil Roe, expansion of some wilderness areas in Cherokee National Forest may soon become reality. The Congressman this month introduced the Tennessee Wilderness Act in the House of Representatives, as companion bill to similar legislation being advanced through the Senate by Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker.
While not adding public-lands acreage to the Forest, wilderness designation, which the Forest Service proposed long ago, would mean stronger, permanent protection for some seven thousand acres surrounding existing wilderness sections.
As though by an ironic twist on its name, the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge was taken over by armed men protesting the very idea of public lands and demanding it be “returned to the people.”
Remarkably, the Tennessee legislature passed and Governor Haslam signed a Resolution urging “the western public lands” to be returned to respective states and allowed to be “sold to private owners.”
Their action is not aligned with the overwhelming sentiment of American citizens.